Women’s politeness: it’s a strategy, not a lifestyle

By Lauren Thatcher

Do you feel that? That’s the tension between professional assertiveness and gender-appropriate politeness for women.

According to Tessa M Pfafman and Bree McEwan (2014), women strategically choose to be polite in order to overcome boundaries set by men in the professional world. How did they learn this? The researchers interviewed 18 women from 15 different types of organizations, and they were asked to describe professional men and women, as well as offering their views on what being a professional means and who influenced those views.

While popular media often depicts successful assertive women, in reality, the women studied described how they were met with a much different scenario. Once women achieved positions in the workplace, they were greeted with negative labels like “bitch” or even the loss of their job because they acted assertively.

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This is something that drives me crazy about being a woman—if you try to reach your professional goals, you’re labeled with nasty names. However, men are encourage to do anything and everything to go after their goals. The good news is, in this particular study, the professional women in this study found a subtle way to achieve their goals while avoiding negative labels.

What’s that subtle way you ask? Something we were all taught growing up—being polite. This strategy worked for them because of the way society views women. Because if a woman perceived as nice and friendly, even if she has to demonstrate these behaviors in a greater capacity than her male counterparts, then she can be seen as a good professional in her coworkers’ eyes. I mean if you’re looking for a way to persuade a man in your professional life, make him feel as though he is the superior when trying to persuade him, right?

Not in my book. Do we need to kiss the ground men walk on? Reinforce sexist stereotypes? Ensure that women have to shine less in the workplace in order to make men happy? Nope. Because according to the authors, this is not the case—they argue instead that women are given the opportunity to redefine what assertive means.

Case in point: the women interviewed for this study felt that being strategic and polite was another way to act as an assertive professional. They believed they had the upper hand because they are able to change their communication strategies based on their understanding of the situation and what they wanted the outcome to be. In other words, women felt they were empowering themselves by redefining what “assertive” means for professional women.  

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So to the women using politeness as a strategy to outsmart the patriarchy, and it works for you: then you go girl(s).

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