update: how can I be more assertive at work?

Remember the letter-writer asking about how to be more assertive at work, especially in the face of sexism? Here’s the update.

I realized, after reading your reply and the comments, that I was letting my self worth get too caught up in feeling like I wasn’t standing up for myself, and then beating myself up for it, which made the stakes feel even higher next time, which made it feel even harder to stand up for myself because it felt symbolic, instead of just a simple but tough work interaction. I decided to strip all that away and identify and attack the problem as systematically as possible.

The problem: People were saying inappropriate and sexist things to me, and I kept getting too anxious to tell them to knock it off.

The solution:
1) Reframe who had the power in these situations. I don’t need to network with these people, I don’t need these people to recommend me for other jobs because I do not want to work with them again. In a way, by being so upfront about their sexism they were giving me the gift of letting me know immediately not to waste my time, and the people who would be missing out on work is them, because I would never recommend them for jobs in the future and would actively discourage hiring them if I was able. Any short term jobs I miss out on now, are well worth it to form a network of people that are actually respectful that I want to keep working with.

2) Give up on ever having that perfect retort that would wither them to their bones, or beautiful speech that would change their life. Instead, I wrote out some very simple, one line, adjustable scripts for every situation I’d come across.

3) Embrace the power of awkward silence. Since I don’t have it in me to make a scene instead just say my one line script, and not say anything else or make it better. Let it be uncomfortable without anyone ever being able to say I was being unprofessional.

4) Practice in lower stakes situations. I did it at a bar, it worked like gangbusters.

5) Go through all my clothes, and pick out all the ones that make me feel as confident as possible, and project the image I want. Only wear those clothes to work, even though it’s just the same ones over and over again.

6) Wait for someone to do something and see how I do.

Yesterday, an older gentleman went on an long, highly inappropriate ramble and halfway through I interrupted and said ” You don’t need to tell me this, it’s making me uncomfortable.” He was very shocked and offended and just talked and talked and talked about why he wasn’t doing anything wrong, and I said nothing, and I kept saying nothing just staring at him as expressionlessly as possible, until he ran out of reasons why nothing he had done was wrong, and then he actually apologized! I told him I appreciated his apology, and then I left. No one told me not to show up tomorrow, and later on, other people came up to me to talk about it and seemed impressed with how I handled the situation. And actually addressing it in the moment, meant I didn’t have an anxiety about it, because it was all done and over. I felt great! I’m calling this a win.

I could write you a whole essay about how interesting it’s been starting this experiment in simple, practical ways to resist sexism, and then midway through have the whole industry basically implode over the Weinstein case, and everything else that’s come out after. At least for now, people are being more careful which is nice even if it is just out of fear. Hopefully it stays that way.

Also, I got a slight jump in title and pay, and being no longer replaceable in five minutes plus traffic has done wonders for making me feel less anxious at work.

Thank you for you and your commenters’ help!

{ 105 comments… read them below }

  1. Don't Blame Me*

    This is awesome! I love the way you re-framed it in your mind from “this is a symbolic interaction that means I can’t ever be assertive if I don’t get it right” to “this is one low-stakes interaction I need to get through.” I think a lot of situations can be helped by taking away the symbolism it holds for us and just treating it like a task that needs to be completed.

        1. Competent Commenter*

          Actually this makes me feel better about a recent interaction at work. For the second time in two days Fergus had a brief conniption in response to something I was saying. In retrospect he was out of line but he happened to push a shame button of mine so I didn’t know how to react in the moment–maybe it was my fault? The second time I just stared at him. He calmed down and the next day did one of those non-apologies where he was needlessly effusive and grateful. It’s been bugging me that I didn’t do better but maybe I actually did just fine. :)

  2. Sara*

    Great update! I love all of your steps but especially #5 – I feel like I have ‘power clothes’ that I wear when I need an extra boost of confidence. I’m glad that you found your everyday power clothes!

    1. Specialk9*

      I feel like I need to print this out and laminate it with tape and stick it in my phone cover for frequent reference. So much wisdom!

      Can I also say… I’m so impressed by the writing! 6 steps, minimal words, but a world of communication. OP, you have a talent for communicating complex ideas simply and thoroughly.

      1. Specialk9*

        Oh, and OP – could you share a couple of the 1 line scripts you wrote out? Many of us need something similar!

        1. Maolin*

          Yes! Me, too. I’d love to have some readily available, simple, yet effective things to say in the moment. I think many (most? all?) women can relate to OP’s anxiety about what to say & regret for not having the perfect zinger retort after the fact. It’s hard to do that silent pause, too. But it seems that’s where the magic happens.

          What a great update!

  3. Observer*

    Great update!

    I’m sure a lot of people were glad to see this guy get some push back. And, really you WERE being nice and “good with people.” You managed to push back on inappropriate behavior without causing a scene and without giving him the traction to dig in. That sounds like a win-win and without being rude. That sounds like VERY good with people, to me.

    1. Lana Kane*

      “I was letting my self worth get too caught up in feeling like I wasn’t standing up for myself, and then beating myself up for it, which made the stakes feel even higher next time” – that is so, so me and something I’ve only started to realize about myself. Thank you for posting your update because it’s given me lots to think about!

      I’ve been working on the power of the awkward silence, actually, and it is an amazing tool if you are able to just keep your mouth shut and sit with the awkwardness! One thing that helps me is to realize that the awkward person isn’t me, it’s the other person who was being inappropriate in the first place.

      Good for you, for all that introspection…it paid off!

      1. Aerin*

        The awkward silence is fantastic. I do phone support and we’re generally discouraged from interrupting customers anyway. But if someone starts really blowing up over something, I just let them keep talking. (It’s a little easier on the phone because I don’t have to pay attention to my body language or expression in any way; I can just pick up my sewing and wait until they stop.) Almost every time, they eventually realize how they sound and I’ll either get an apology or acknowledgement that none of this is my fault. And I won’t have said a word. Honestly, in that situation people just tend to want to vent. Understanding it’s not personal (and having them be on the other end of a phone instead of within punching distance, because that’s a thing that has happened to me) makes it a lot easier to disconnect and let it wash over me.

        1. Julia the Survivor*

          I’m a venter. The stupidity of corporate retail and financial makes me crazy! Not to mention the disrespect of treating their customers like so many ATMs!
          I know the person I’m talking to didn’t make the stupid decisions, and I try not to be rude or hurtful to them. I’m hoping some of my comments will make it to management. When indicated, I ask them to pass my comments along.
          I really appreciate the customer service people who have listened and respected what I say. Thank you! :)

          1. nonegiven*

            Writing directly to corporate may be more likely to get at least the sentiment passed along if not the actual comment.

        2. Elizabeth West*

          I always did that too—or I’d wait until they took a breath and then I’d gently say “Let me see if I can ask someone. May I put you on hold?” or whatever.
          But I hate phone work and don’t ever want to do it again, so….

        3. Julia the Survivor*

          Imagine being able to give real customer service by giving the customers what they expect and having management’s support to do so!
          In the 1950’s my mother worked at a Woolworth’s. She managed her own counter – ordered what the customers needed or were asking for, kept track of inventory, did the sales. She liked her job and the customers were satisfied.

          1. nonegiven*

            Now, you go to the store and ask about something they are out of and find out they don’t order anything. They get what corporate puts on the truck and they have no idea if it will be on the next truck or never again.

      2. Ermintrude Mulholland*

        The power of the awkward silence got me an inceased pay offer once I was extra impressed with myself when I later realised that my boss (and CEO) was herself a master user of the awkward silence

  4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

    This is an amazing update with fantastic advice / strategies for others! I’m looking forward to deploying some of these in my work life :)

    Thank you so much for sharing it, OP!

  5. AndersonDarling*

    I love this. So often, people think that speaking out against bigotry, sexism, etc…will make you look offended and weak, but it actually makes you look in control and it is a key signal of leadership. If the retort is done in a controlled manner, of course!
    Speaking up shows that you are willing to take control of the situation. If a manager sees you speaking out against an offensive joke, then they know you would speak up and stop a project that has derailed. It’s important to stop gross comments, but more than that, it is a great skill that will help you succeed.

  6. Tomato Frog*

    and I said nothing, and I kept saying nothing just staring at him as expressionlessly as possible,

    Hello OP you are my hero.

    1. kittymommy*

      Ahh, the power of awkward silence, I love it. It’s amazing what just staring at someone with a relatively blank expression can do after you have already made your argument or called them on something.

    2. Marina*

      I literally yelled “YES!” out loud when I read this. Good thing I’m working from home today. Seriously, OP, this was beautiful to read and the internet is cheering for you. :)

  7. Veruca*

    Oh my goodness. It’s like you just wrote out a plan for me dealing with my parents. Thank you so much for expressing what I couldn’t! Each interaction has become symbolic of all the other interactions and I’ve been too caught up in retorting perfectly to change the world.

    Pardon me, I’m going to clean out my closet and write out some short replies to dealing with uncomfortableness in the moment without worrying about changing the entire situation in a perfectly worded sentence…..

  8. Cassandra*

    OP, you are amazing and I’m so glad you are feeling more confident. Thank you for updating, and if you have a moment and don’t mind, I’d love for you to share your one-line scripts here in the comments.

    1. M-C*

      Oh yes, it works no matter what kind of ism you have to deal with! Great update OP, so glad it’s working for you :-).

  9. Lady Phoenix*

    I think the problem is that anlot of films these days frame only one type of assertive women: the kind that can kick a dude’s ass if they try to mess with her.

    Granted, learning self defence is a good thing… but I hate that the media think sthat is the ONLY way to be a “strong, independent woman” when we have to deal with other scenarios where either we are incapable of physical force (for example: physically or mental disability) or not warranted (example: an office setting)

    We need different types of woman: intelligent, kind, crafty, ambitious, sneaky, witty, funny, and other women who display their strength and assertiveness.

    1. PB*

      I agree with this. I also blame films and television for spreading the idea that a retort has to be witty or funny. OP’s one-line scripts will be much more effective.

    2. AKchic*

      Wholeheartedly agree. There are so many ways to be strong. Physicality is only one kind of strength. We need to model the others. Hermione Granger can’t be the only non-physical role model for us.

      1. nonegiven*

        Actually, learning martial arts empowers you to give that awkward stare. I’ve actually seen 2 different people physically take a step back and they were already on the other side of a counter and at least 2 yards behind it.

    3. Observer*

      I agree with you. It’s a problem in the wider society as well, I think. Ideas of what is “manly” and what constitutes “strength” are way too narrow.

    4. Snark*

      After we saw the new Star Wars, we could not get over how awesome the Laura Dern character, Admiral Holdo, was. Feminine, dressed in flowing robes, soft-spoken, purple-haired, totally unimpressed by macho bullshit, and completely uninclined to explain/justify/defend her strategy and endgame to the macho bullshitter, who’d already screwed up royally twice and didn’t get a seat at the big kid table. Doesn’t even hint that she’s playing a long game, just does her thing without justification or apology, because’s she’s the goddamn boss. And then, does something so badass, all sound in the movie stops for ten seconds so everyone can hear the entire theater gasp.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        So true. These kinds of models are important, and they definitely broaden the conversation (in good ways) about what constitutes strength and what constitutes leadership.

          1. Snark*

            I actually got into it with a fanboy who was reduced to insisting that if she had a plan, she owed it to Poe to tell him what it was so he didn’t feel like he had to act. And I was like, uh, my dude….why, exactly, does she owe a blessed goddamned thing to a subordinate recently demoted for insubordination, who got most of his command – the entire strategic bomber force – to knock out one enemy ship, and who then turns around and conceals critical information from her about the activities of others also under her command? Activities that ended up being half-cocked and ultimately pointless? Most navies, that’d get you slammed into the brig, or just summarily shot!

            1. Justin*

              He literally got sooooo many people killed. So many!

              But let him know things right?

              I do love that Leia was like “this guy, he doesn’t need to know stuff.”

      2. PersephoneUnderground*

        Yaaas! I loved her! And the other characters’ plan actually *did* turn out to be a bad idea and even jeopardized the greater plan. Chain of command people! An Admiral doesn’t have time to stop and explain every decision to each subordinate in a war! She was totally awesome.

      3. Thany*

        I also liked how the Admiral and Leia shared a moment when they both agreed they liked Poe, and giggled about it. They are strong leaders, and they had to put him in his place. But they also still respected him and knew he had a place in the rebellion. TLJ just wasn’t his moment.

    5. Candi*

      “We need different types of woman: intelligent, kind, crafty, ambitious, sneaky, witty, funny, and other women who display their strength and assertiveness.”

      This is awesome.

  10. Shirley Keeldar*

    OP, you are my new role model! I’m standing up in front of my computer and applauding madly. (Well, in my mind I am.) Please know that in developing such an awesome script for standing up for yourself you’ve helped other women too. Definitely me!

    1. ArtK*

      Adding to this: I think that the best part for me was that you refused to negotiate with the man. He tried to JADE (Justify Argue Defend Explain) which is an opening for negotiation — the idea that he could convince you that what he did really wasn’t so bad. By giving him the silent treatment, you made it clear that the issue wasn’t negotiable. You gave a clear signal that his opinion on what he did, didn’t matter at all. Had you responded to his attempt, that would have sent a signal that his opinion mattered somehow.

      Again, you did a fantastic job!

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          I think it’s usually attributed to Al-Anon. It’s often invoked when discussing toxic relationships, including but not limited to: dealing with the addicts in your life, codependency, engaging with narcissists, etc.

  11. GG Two shoes*

    This might be my favorite update this year. Way to “reclaim your time.” The world is yours, my friend.

  12. Snark*

    “He was very shocked and offended and just talked and talked and talked about why he wasn’t doing anything wrong, and I said nothing, and I kept saying nothing just staring at him as expressionlessly as possible, until he ran out of reasons why nothing he had done was wrong, and then he actually apologized! I told him I appreciated his apology, and then I left.”

    I love everything about this except for your coworker, who I want to fire from a cannon into a hyena pen.

    1. misspiggy*

      Brilliant. I will henceforward get a great deal of satisfaction from picturing annoying coworkers being fired from a cannon into a hyena pen.

  13. Glacier*

    OP, I’m thrilled on your behalf! Congrats on taking a problem, looking at it thoroughly, and finding a solution that works well for you!! High fives all around!!!

    If you’re willing to share the one-liners, I bet there’s an audience here for them. Same goes for the essay on sexual harassment pre- and post-Weinstein. I’d, for one, love to read it.

    Sending you tons of good universe vibes. Way to kickass!!

    1. Stishovite*

      OP, I would read that post-Weinstein essay, and link it ALL over (my extremely limited) my social media. I bet many of the other AAM readers/commenters would as well!

      You are a star, for how you’ve handled this. Brava!

  14. A Bag of Jedi Mind Tricks*

    This is a great update. Good for you, OP. With regards to #2, can you give us a few examples?? Pleeeeeeze

  15. Formerly Arlington*

    I wish I had read this decades ago, when I was in my 20s. It took me close to two decades to be able to stand up for myself and to finally get compensated like my more assertive peers. Reading Allison’s answer to the initial post was especially eye-opening… praised for being agreeable, reprimanded for speaking up is pretty much a recipe for being a people pleaser afraid to contradict authority or anyone, really! Thrilled the OP stood her ground.

  16. Safetykats*

    Oh, the power of silence. I think it’s awesome that you’ve found that; some people never do. I like to have people practice that – especially women and younger employees, who often think that they need to rebut every point, or fill every pause. Once you’ve made your point, always consider that the most effective thing to say may be nothing at all.

  17. Just another voice in the echo chamber*

    OP, your methodical approach to this is an absolute inspiration! Well done!

  18. OP*

    Hey everyone!
    So the somewhat effective single liners that I’ve used are:
    If someone is doing something physically inappropriate.
    “Don’t touch me”.

    If someone is making a sexist joke instead of laughing uncomfortably or launching into a long speech about the history of sexism just reply.
    “What a weird thing to say”.
    “Huh, alright then”.

    If someone starts talking about how women are terrible bosses. Unfortunately, a not uncommon conversation I’ve heard in the last few months, because one of the head bosses is a woman (who’s quite good at her job, actually).
    “I think I’m going to be a great boss” – this one seems to be the most effective in getting people to shut the fuck up, because no one will tell you to your face that you’d be a bad manager.
    “I really try to think of women as people, some are good bosses, some are bad”, when someone inevitably replies with an example of all the bad women bosses they have “Sounds like you’ve had some bad luck. I haven’t had that experience at all.” walk away.

    If someone says something just blatantly sexist.
    “I disagree” – this is the one I use the most, but on one occasion I did use.
    “I don’t need to hear about your issues with women”, to particular effect.

    These aren’t full proof or anything, and sadly since writing in this update originally, there was an incident with a drunken higher up which after thinking about for awhile I decided to not report, and just avoid the person involved, which didn’t make me feel great, but I do think was ultimately the correct choice, although I go back and forth on it. But in general, when I’ve been dealing with just run of the mill comments and jokes I’ve found these to be pretty effective.

    1. Bitey Gobstopper Psycho*

      Thanks for those lines, OP! They sound like they’re really effective at creating the awkward silences that are just so delicious for letting the offending person stew in.

    2. Kristine*

      “I don’t need to hear about your issues with women.”

      Fell down flat on the floor dead. Bravo, OP.

    3. Interplanet Janet*

      Bravo, OP! These are brilliant! Short and to the point. The expressionless face and use of silence *as power* is to be commended! I’m currently in process of making solid resolutions to keep in the new year, and using silence while some arsehole rambles on is now on my list. Thank you!

    4. New Bee*

      Good for you, OP! It’s a powerful thing to just shut it down, especially in the face of so much “but why won’t you just [waste your time and energy on a futile attempt to] educate meee?” Virtual fist bump.

    5. Writelhd*

      I really love the “huh, I haven’t had that experience at all” then walk away approach as a way to deal with any kind of steriotype somebody wants to bring up about another group, or even if someone is trying to stir up drama about a co-worker or another department. Brilliant.

    6. GG Two shoes*

      OP, it’s not to late to report the incident if you decide to. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

  19. Bitey Gobstopper Psycho*

    What a great update! I’m totally stealing your 6-step plan for dealing with this kind of stuff, for the record, because it’s fantastic! (and a great alternative to my usual default of “I can and will kick physical ass if needed”)

  20. Stishovite*

    OP-inspired possible script, I’d love feedback.

    Co-worker: awful sexist comment/rant
    You: awkward silence
    Co-worker: JADE (Justify Argue Defend Explain)
    You: awkward silence
    Co-worker: “What?” or “Say something!”
    You: “I was just waiting for you to realize how inappropriate you’re being/how inappropriate that all was. ” Walk away.

    1. Nic*

      The final comment is a little strong for me personally to feel comfortable delivering, but I like the silence beforehand and any comment could easily be inserted. Good idea!

    2. Ladybugger*

      One of the ones I’ve heard on Captain Awkward and love is “I hope you’re not saying that because you think I agree with you.”

      1. Hapless Bureaucrat*

        A friend of mine uses the stock comment “wow, you really said that.” Useful in a host of situations. She sometimes shortens it to just “wow.”

        1. MerciMe*

          “Wow” is great. I’ve also used “I couldn’t possibly speak to that,” “I mean, that certainly is an opinion that some people hold,” “I can’t even think of an appropriate way to respond to that,” and “dude, not cool.” But I’ll also umpteenth the suggestions that silence and nonverbals can also be very effective. A slight stiffening and pulling away (raised eyebrow optional), then gently excusing oneself to other business. Or pursing one’s lips while shaking one’s head slightly in disapproval.

          I think the main thing is to remember that you are not in the wrong for being confronted by someone else’s impropriety, and so you have nothing to be self-conscious about – they are in the wrong for not exercising the level of basic good judgement required of adults in a business context.

  21. Massmatt*

    Wow, what an update! OP I seriously hope you write that essay, or hell, a BOOK, on this subject. I love the methodical approach. The Force is strong with you, new Jedi!

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