Assertive vs. Aggressive: How “Positive Rudeness” Can Subvert Workplace Double Standards

Assertiveness In The Workplace - Rebecca Reid

The rules for women are different – even in professional settings. Our voices are too soft, or too loud. We take up too much room, or too little. We’re told to lean in, but also, to smile. We are encouraged to be more assertive in the workplace, but when we are, we are deemed to be aggressive, or even worse, rude. These rules impact everyone in a workplace, men and women alike, because when we’re not all bringing 100% of ourselves to the job, the work suffers. So how can women navigate these contradicting messages and make work more manageable? In this episode, we are joined by Rebecca Reid, author of Rude: Stop Being Nice and Start Being Bold. Here, she explains:

  • What "Positive Rudeness" is
  • Why the name you're called in the workplace is important
  • How the way you write can undermine what you write
  • Ways allies can help amplify assertive practices; and
  • How "Positive Rudeness" and assertiveness in the workplace contribute to a more respectful workplace! 


If you prefer to read along while you listen, we've done all the hard work for you! We listened back to this episode and took notes below, and access is free! 


Inspiration For Rude: Stop Being Nice and Start Being Bold

  • On one of her appearances on Good Morning Britain, Ms. Reid debated whether or not there should be any limits in comedy.Her discussion counterpart believed differently and argued that he had the right to make jokes about whatever he felt the audience would find humorous. Ms. Reid responded saying “if you can’t make jokes without being racist, sexist, or homophobic, then you are not very funny.” This led her counterpart to interrupt her.From there she exclaimed that she would not allow men to talk over her constantly and began “shushing” him, which led to him to stop interrupting her.
  • Following the TV discussion, there was a “short-lived” media cycle in which she was dubbed “Rebecca Rude.” During this time, she experienced a lot of negative media attention from internet “trolling” to even friends “shushing” her thinking the entire situation was funny.
  • The “Rebecca Rude” experience inspired Ms. Reid to write her book.

Positive Rudeness

  • In her book, when Ms. Reid refers to rudeness, she is talking about what she has termed “Positive Rudeness.” 
    • This is the rudeness that prioritizes your own wants and needs above those of other people - unless you are actively trying to be kind.
      • For example, if you are standing in line and someone cuts in front of you, it is positive rudeness to say “excuse me, I was ahead of you.” or if being kind, you can let them in front of you because it seems like that person is having a bad day.
      • The worst case scenario in this situation would be to let that person jump ahead of you in line and then quietly be upset about it for the rest of the day. 
      • These are the kinds of small situations in which positive rudeness is important.
  • It can be difficult to implement positive rudeness because it goes against all of the social interaction guidelines that have been ingrained in us for so long. We have always been taught to put others’ wants and needs before our own, but that is not always the healthiest option. 
  • In a way, positive rudeness is about auditing your generosity so that you are making active choices rather than passively allowing others to step over you.

“A Journey To Deprogram Yourself”

  • Many of us are raised to view rudeness as a negative.
    • This is especially true for females who are often seemingly penalized more for perceived rudeness than males. 
    • The “gold standard” for girls is good behavior while the “gold standard” for boys is achievement. 
    • Growing up, Ms. Reid remembers being taught to be a “good girl” by being quiet, kind, and respectful, to please others, and to put your own needs last. All of those teachings are the root of the “journey to deprogram yourself” that Ms. Reid details in her book.

Is Positive Rudeness Gender-Specific?

  • Positive rudeness seems to come more naturally to men, due to the societal standards we are raised with, but everyone can benefit from positive rudeness!
  • Anyone that finds this concept particularly helpful or intriguing should definitely understand and use it to their advantage. 

Positive Rudeness Can Make An Impact Outside Of The Workplace

  • Ms. Reid details a few major areas in which positive rudeness can have an impact for women outside of the workplace:
    • Health
    • Money
    • Weddings
    • Friendship
    • Sex
    • Relationships
    • Dating

Assertiveness In The Workplace

  • Names: Your name can seem like a small point of contention, but it is incredibly important to set the precedent from the start. 
    • The most important thing you can do when beginning a job at a new workplace is to introduce yourself with the name that you would like to be called,  and then do not allow anyone to deviate from that name. This is a quick and early situation to utilize assertiveness in the workplace to set a precedent.
    • For example, Ms. Reid’s first name is Rebecca, which she notes people often want to change to “Becky”, “Becca”, or “Becs”. These nicknames are smaller and shorter than her given name - and use of these nicknames would result in her literally taking up less space on a page or in spoken conversation. It’s, admittedly, a small thing, but it does add up.
    • When introducing yourself by the name you wish to be called, remember: silence is a powerful tool, because it ends the conversation. You’ve been introduced and there is nothing more to say about it. 
    • Mispronunciation of names is also a common issue, especially for uncommon or unfamiliar names that derive from a different culture. This is especially true for women of color, which makes this situation even more difficult because women of color can be unfairly perceived as aggressive, strong, and powerful - making it difficult to correct someone on name pronunciation or a nickname. 
    • People will often claim that a name is too difficult to pronounce so they will ask to call you by a different name.
    • “Don’t let people call you ‘Mary’ because they can’t pronounce your full name.”
  • Written Communication: Written messages are a very complicated and very important part of how we send out messages about ourselves in the workplace. 
    • Exclamation marks aren’t typically something used in professional messaging, but we often use them anyway, in an effort to convey that they are a “nice person” - but really all it does is actually all it does is make you seem like you've a questionable grasp of grammar or are really bizarrely perky. 
    • Ms. Reid suggests weaning yourself off overuse of exclamation marks in your emails, and only use them in situations that truly call for an excited tone.
    • Things like emojis and other icons should also be used more sparingly, for the same reasons.
  • Word Use: There are a few other written words that women tend to use more often than they should, if they’d like to increase their assertiveness in the workplace.
    • “Just” and “Quick”: The use of the words “just” or “quick” serve as minimizer,s an attempt to be less direct by minimizing your request: “I was just wondering if there’s any chance you could possibly…” or “Quick question?. Be more direct, and simply ask for what you need.
    • “Sorry”: Women apologize a lot. This is primarily due to the fact that women are often taught that they do not deserve space in the workplace, which is partially because the workplace system was designed when women didn’t work. This fact has fostered the idea that women should be grateful for their opportunity and therefore should tread lightly - which has led to women apologizing for things there is no reason to apologize for, such as having children.
      • A common theme Ms. Reid found that she and many other women use “sorry” when she means “thank you.” This happens at work or outside of work, in any situation in life. “I’m so sorry for being late” really means “Thank you for waiting”, and a person actually get a much nicer experience from you if you thank them rather than apologizing.

How Can Men Support Women

  • Men can support women by welcoming their assertiveness in the workplace and letting them know that they belong.
  • One example given by Ms. Reid, to encourage direct communication, is a “swear jar” type of strategy wherein everyone puts a quarter in a jar each time they apologize for something that does not merit an apology. The finds from the jar can then be used to fund a workplace gathering or resource.
  • In a more formal workplace, implementing assertiveness workshops or online training is a good way to let employees know that they are welcome and should feel confident at work. 

“Hepeating”

  • “Hepeating” (HE-peating) refers to when a woman makes a great point in a discussion or meeting, only to be repeated by a man later. What he says could be as innocuous as “I like what she said” or “She made a good point”  - but the end result is that the group leader ends up giving full recognition for that idea to the man.This can also occur if a woman explains something in detail and then a man will take what she said and distill it down to a more concise point and then all anyone will remember is the concise version when it was the woman who should be getting the credit.
  • This is where assertiveness in the workplace comes into play and the woman should say “yes, that is exactly what I just said.” 
    • If a woman is not in the position to call hepeating out on her own, a good tactic is to find a “workplace buddy or ally” that will call out the person for hepeating if you cannot. This helps hold the entire workplace accountable in this regard. 
    • “Bragging” is also another area in which a workplace buddy/ally can be beneficial. Many women will not want to brag about themselves so your workplace buddy can brag about you to others and vice versa. 

Positive Rudeness’ Role In Better Pay Equity

  • There is a perception that women do not ask for pay raises, which is objectively not true.
    • Very often women are asking for pay raises and not getting them.
    • Women are occasionally punished for even asking, which is a systemic issue.
  • Assertiveness in the workplace can help lead to achieving a pay raise, but does not guarantee it.
    • Step one is to simply ask for a pay raise.
    • Step two is knowing how to ask for a raise.
      • Based on her research Ms. Reid has found that women tend to ask for pay raises in ways that makes it very easy for the provider to say no.
        • Asking for a raise in an email, for example, is much easier to refuse.
        • Asking in person and going into that meeting armed with all of the necessary supporting information can lead to a pay raise. 
        • Asking for a specific amount of money is also a useful tactic.

Positive Rudeness Contribute To A More Respectful Workplace

  • Positive Rudeness can absolutely create a more respectful workplace. At a minimum, it sets a precedent that disrespect will not be tolerated. 
  • Women utilizing assertiveness in the workplace and employing positive rudeness isn’t always the easiest thing to do, but once done, it becomes a regular practice, women will be more equipped to deal with uncomfortable situations.
  • Assertiveness and Positive Rudeness are especially useful when situations arise requiring HR intervention. Women should feel empowered to speak up when disrespectful behaviors take place, and create those boundaries. 

Rebecca Reid Background

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About the Author Jacqueline Gregory

As a creative, persuasive communications professional with extensive experience guiding projects from concept through completion Jacqui has produced custom communications for some of the world's best known brands. Producing ProjectHR has been one of her favorite ways to engage and delight HR and Labor Relations professionals!

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