Women should adopt ‘positive rudeness’ at work to boost their assertiveness, according to journalist and author Rebecca Reid.
In a recent appearance on Canadian TV, the British writer – once dubbed ‘Rude Rebecca’ on social media after shooshing an overbearing, male comic during a debate on Good Morning Britain – argued that the “right kind of rude” can actually help women advance their careers. (CTV News, 7 December 2020)
Interviewed in relation to her recently published book The Power of Rude, Reid highlighted what she perceives as a crucial double-standard, whereby men – particularly in the workplace – automatically perceive assertive women as rude.
In her view, women must avoid using understated phraseology in their work emails, such as ‘just’ or ‘quick look’, which make them sound as though they are apologising for wanting someone to carry out a task on their behalf. On a similar theme, she warns women against a knee-jerk, conversational overuse of ‘sorry’ in a socially embarrassed or diffident manner, as it can advertise the notion that you’re “getting things wrong all the time”, when that is not the case. “When you say ‘sorry,’” Reid said, “you’ve undermined yourself. You’ve said, ‘I’m wrong’ or ‘I’ve made a mistake’, whereas a lot of the time you haven't made a mistake – or if you have, it’s a very small one.”
She also sounds an alarm over using too many exclamation marks in emails in an effort to come across as nice. "In reality,” she said, “particularly at work, there are other more important things than being sweet. Being competent, being efficient – those are the qualities you want to advertise. Not just the fact that you’re a sweetheart.”
A subsequent LinkedIn News thread about Reid’s comments clearly shows that her ideas have struck a chord among female professionals. In a post about the interview, senior recruiter Tejal Wagadia writes: “Ladies, stop occupying less space because someone said there isn’t any more. Go out there and occupy more space. Also, stop worrying about how much space you are occupying. It’s distracting you from achieving your goals, whatever they may be. I'll tell you this, most men don’t think twice about it.” (LinkedIn News, 10 December 2020)
Could Reid’s ‘positive rudeness’ ethos become an effective manifesto for women – or is it counterproductive to equate assertiveness with rudeness in the first place?
The Institute of Leadership & Management’s chief executive John Mark Williams says: “Anything that helps to avoid bias against women – whether in the workplace or elsewhere – deserves serious consideration, and needs to be looked at practicably. In terms of the language itself, the shampoo brand Pantene once used an ad campaign to highlight the difference in terms between men and women – for example, a male professional who’s assertive is ‘a boss’, while a female who’s taking the same tone is ‘bossy’; a male leader who’s delivering a punchy speech is ‘persuasive’, while his female counterpart is ‘pushy,’ and so on.” (P&G Pantene Philippines and BBDO Guerrero via YouTube, December 2013)
Williams notes: “As that campaign illustrated, it’s clear that the application of attitude in the workplace differs by gender. However, the idea that the ‘right kind of rude’ can resolve this is inherently flawed. I don’t think there actually is a right kind of rude, purely because of the association with the word ‘rude’. That’s language that goes beyond assertive and into the aggressive – a bit like a female equivalent of how men use the word ‘banter’ to wave off criticism of inappropriate subjects or terms in everyday workplace chat.”
He adds: “The term I really like – which is not wholly dissimilar to positive rudeness – is ‘intelligent disobedience’: a term I’ve often heard applied to both women and men. It’s a term that doesn’t indicate a ‘Get out of my way – I’m coming through whether you like it or not’ approach. So, for everybody, the challenge here is to try and achieve a critical mass of women and men in the workplace who accept and encourage assertiveness as a universal trait. But in that context, I’m not entirely sure that everyone would be positively disposed towards the word ‘rudeness.’”
For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on communicating.