Doing this work, I hear a lot of painful stories from women who have been told they’re “abrasive,” “too direct,” or “too aggressive” at work.
The words often arrive like punches to the gut. They stay with us for years or decades following. And they often leave us afraid of fully using our voices.
If you have in your own history the experience of being called too direct, too aggressive or abrasive, I’m sorry. I’m sorry for the hurt of that and for what it likely did to your voice afterward. I know it was not a small thing.
You are not alone. In fact, you join millions of women around the globe who, like you, were trying to get some important thing done and stopped sugar coating – for a moment.
In that moment, you broke an unwritten rule for women. You didn’t tamp down what you had to say, or make yourself tentative and small.
But the truth is you are not abrasive, or too direct, or too aggressive. What that other person was really saying was, “I have no idea what to do when a woman talks this way. And I’m uncomfortable with it.”
They told you something about themselves, and they revealed what we collectively permit in women’s self-expression.
What about when we talk about other women in this way? Quite often, the people calling other women too direct or too aggressive or abrasive are other women. I think every single one of us has done it.
If we haven’t said it aloud, we have certainly thought, “She’s not being nice enough about that. She sounds abrasive.” Maybe you gossiped about her to someone else. Maybe you silently penalized her for the strength with which she shared her voice – distancing yourself from her or simply liking her a little less.
We can understand this with some wisdom and compassion. Women are taught to soften or silence our own voices beginning early in girlhood. We learn to tone police ourselves. It then feels excruciating to encounter another woman who is not tone policing herself.
What we do not allow in ourselves, we will never allow in another woman.
We ask her to strangle what we have strangled, using words that wound and shame: you are too aggressive, you are too direct, you are abrasive.
Next time, what if we don’t give her any feedback at all? Instead, we can use a provocation to go home and reflect, to examine what is comfortable and uncomfortable for each of us when it comes to other women’s expression of their voices.
We won’t have a world filled with vocal women leaders, until we do this homework.
Let’s find our way back to strong voices.
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