Like every female who grew up in the South in the fifties and sixties, I knew how I was supposed to act. I was supposed to be agreeable and deferential. I was supposed to “draw out” other people and ask about their lives. I needed to be tactful, above all else.
But then the women’s movement and the seventies arrived, and I found out everything I’d been learning for all those years was completely wrong. I’d been oppressed by the male-dominated society. I hadn’t learned to speak up for myself. I needed to be assertive. (Being assertive was different from being aggressive, I learned. Assertiveness meant you stood up for yourself; aggressiveness was when you trampled other people. Men — those domineering slimeballs — were born aggressive; women had to learn to be assertive.)
These new ideas focused on everything that was wrong in my life. Why I, for example, could sit in a chair at the beauty shop while some incompetent scissors wielder whacked my hair off and made me look like I’d been a cast member of “The Birds,” with my eyes pecked out and my hair chopped off on the floor. I’d sit there without saying anything — since I was already planning to go home and cry about how my life had been ruined — then thank the hairdresser profusely and leave an inordinately big tip. That kind of thing.
So, I went to assertiveness training once in the early eighties. After half an hour, I realized the assertiveness teacher was even more timid than I was. What was I doing wasting my time and money? I could have been getting a bad haircut, instead.
“Your problem is you’re too southern and polite,” an editor once told me. He found my stories about playing on a women’s soccer team and how we were too polite to go for the ball to be hilarious. He said I needed to come and live in New York, where I would either become highly aggressive (like him) or would probably get stuck on a street corner for several years, waiting for everybody else to take their turn.
Years passed. Hell, decades passed. I’m not sure I’ve become more assertive. I’ve just gotten older and more impatient. There aren’t as many things I want. If I do want them, I often manage to ask for them.
Like last night, at my friend Betsy’s 50th birthday party. Now, I could have waited patiently and unassertively while the birthday cake was being cut, politely waiting my turn for an inferior piece of cake. But no. I’ve learned better.
“You need to cut the cake,” I told Betsy. “And when you do, I want a corner piece.”
Betsy headed off into another direction and, as far as I was concerned, she was spending far too much time talking to other people and ignoring the cake. But finally, somebody lit the candles and everybody sang. Then I began to notice people strolling around with pieces of birthday cake — and I started to panic. What about my corner piece?
I pushed my way through the crowd around the cake. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see Betsy waving at me. “I’ve got your corner piece!” she screamed.
I ate the corner piece very happily, then had a second non-corner slice. I thought of how my friend in New York would never believe how assertive and aggressive I’ve become about some things in my life. I may be the only person on earth above the age of seven who demands a corner piece of cake, but who cares about pride? How are you going to have your corner piece and eat it, too, if you never ask for it?
(Copyright 2008 by Ruth Pennebaker)