Ever been told to be more assertive? Don’t listen. Read this:

‘What shall we do?

‘I don’t mind. Whatever you like.’

When I was younger, my conversations would often follow this pattern, me being the one not minding. One day, a friend gave me the well-meant advice to get some assertiveness training, because I seemed so insecure. But I didn’t feel like that at all.

Nowadays, I sometimes meet men in senior positions who tell me they really wanted to hire a woman, but alas, the candidates were too insecure. I  reply that, no doubt, these women are confident since they applied for a top position. But all I get back is a sceptic headshake.

So, what is going on?

Women tend to use ‘weak’ language, said professor of linguistics, Robin Lakoff way back in the 1970s when she started studying how women and men speak. She thought this speaking style was reflecting ‘internalized female insecurity’, as my male counterparts seemed to think as well. But, please, if you have been made to believe that you’re insecure or lack confidence, stop doing so!

It’s not true.

Other scholars, like professor of socio-linguistics Janet Holmes, have pointed out how, for example, tag questions (don’t you think?) can function to elicit a response and to make a connection. One could even argue that it’s a marker of power, because tags force the other to respond or to be accountable for the lack of response.

In a recent article, organizational psychologist Adam Grant supports this view. He quotes research indicating that using ‘weak’ language with disclaimers (I might be wrong, but …) and hedges (maybe, sort of) can work to one’s advantage, if, for example, you want to get a pay rise. I was delighted by his article and even wondered if he’d read my book ‘We-Mind vs. Me-Mind’ 🙂 :).

Making yourself heard

In it I dedicate a whole chapter to the way we use our language. (It’s called ‘Making yourself heard’.) I argue that it’s not so much gender related, but rather reflects the strategies of two thinking styles, which — as you know — I call our We-mind and our Me-mind. We all have both, but tend to lean towards one of the two.

Our We-mind focuses on relations and building connections. To that aim, a we-minded person will use ‘facilitative’ language (as it was re-labelled by Danish researcher Amelie Due Svenson). Our Me-mind focuses on improving our own well-being and status, and to that aim, uses assertive language.

There is a time and place for both. Smooth conversation is the interplay of the two styles and depends a lot on the expectations speakers have of each other. We-minded communication aims to connect and meet people where they are. Knowing when to use which style is crucial to being perceived as leaderlike, to successfully pursue a new position, negotiate your salary, or get your partner or children to do chores.

And yes, more women are we-minded than men, and more men lean towards me-mindedness, but it’s not an absolute divide. What really matters is how we value each style. Currently, only our Me-mind is associated with professionalism, but in fact, the world would fall apart without we-mindedness. So, if you’re told to be more assertive, there is no need to change yourself. Just value the way you communicate, inform your audience about it, and use both your minds (and communication styles) appropriately.


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