Boldness be my friend

When I was in Grade 9 or 10, I decided to take an evening course in assertiveness being offered at our local community centre. It wasn’t that I was a pushover or anything, it was more that I was tired of being confronted with what I considered to be unreasonable requests by my teacher -like always being picked to answer questions in class because I wasn’t paying attention to her. I thought it might be helpful to learn how to discourage her from pointing at me -learn how to confront her with stern unblinking eyes, or maybe a wry smile; I was open for suggestions. I also thought assertiveness training could even help me to get a few dates if I got really good at it; maybe I could practice on the girls who might be taking the course for the same reason.

The first thing I noticed that evening however, was that everybody in the room was at least twenty years older than me and they were all praeternaturally quiet as we waited for the class to begin. Most had brought something to read so they didn’t have to interact with their neighbours, and all I could hear were pages turning, and polite little sighs. There also seemed to be more women than men present that night, but given their ages, I realized they would probably have been largely inaccessible to me even if I’d been taller and in Grade 12.

The instructor, however, was also short, and perhaps to demonstrate his mastery of the subject, arrived 15 minutes late for the class and neither apologized, nor even acknowledged his rudeness. In fact, for the longest time, he didn’t say anything, but merely gazed serenely at us as if we were his vassals; I suppose in a way, we were.

The readers didn’t seem to take offence, however, and merely closed their books and smiled shyly when they sensed somebody was standing at the front of the room. Maybe they were used to being treated like that but I wasn’t, and the instructor noticed the expression on my face and singled me out. The barest outline of a smile rimmed his lips.

“And what is your name, sir?” he asked me with a tone of voice that implied he really only said ‘sir’ not to embarrass me.

“G,” I answered in my best student voice, hoping as I said it that it didn’t crack.

“You seem surprised at my late arrival,” he said matter-of-factly, and glanced around the room before turning to me again.

“No… I…” I mumbled in embarrassment. I didn’t know what to respond to him.

“Sometimes these things happen though, don’t they? Unexpected things…” He smiled and made eye contact with a few faces  before continuing. “Not everything requires an explanation, or an excuse… In fact, sometimes even thinking there is a need to describe what happened is really just feeling there is a need for justification when none is required.”

His gaze fell on me again, and he looked pleased that I had given him the example he needed to illustrate a basic tenet of assertiveness: quit feeling guilty all the time and pretend you have something valuable to offer. A valid point, I suppose, although I was still curious about why he’d been late and thought he was rude not to explain. And I also sensed there were probably times when being assertive would get you into more trouble than if you simply apologized and lowered your eyes -when the teacher asked you why you hadn’t handed in her assignment, for example; or when you were caught whispering to the girl in the seat across the aisle. Sometimes swallowing one’s pride and surviving to hunt again another day was an equally good strategy. I didn’t go to the next meeting of the AA as one of my friends called it when I told him I’d really enrolled in the assertiveness training program to learn some tricks about getting dates.

“You just pretend you have something to offer to the girl,” he said, and shrugged indifferently, as if everybody did that. He could have given the course.

At any rate, eventually we all develop our own style of coping, and I didn’t give the idea of assertiveness much thought as I blithely wandered through the years. Then, when I was well into my autumnal phase, the memory of that course surfaced when I noticed an article written by Rebecca Roache, at the time a senior lecturer in philosophy from the Royal Holloway, University of London: Okay, I suppose I should admit that I was initially drawn to it by a voluptuous photograph of the 1932 Joan Crawford at the top. And, frankly, at my age I wasn’t sure what I was practicing anymore, but a seductive picture is as good a reason to read an article as anything else.  Anyway, Roache mentioned Aristotle, and he has always interested me. ‘In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle was concerned with how to live a good life. A good life for humans requires a virtuous character. Virtues are character traits that exist at the mid-point of a spectrum between two vices… Courage lies between recklessness and cowardice. Friendliness lies between surliness and obsequiousness. You get the idea.’ Moderation, in other words; compromise. Ethical choices are seldom binary choices. In fact, binaries are often ‘a remnant of how we saw the world as kids, when people were either ‘goodies’ or ‘baddies’. Eventually, we learn to see the nuances between the extremes, but we all lapse into all-or-nothing thinking sometimes.’ Of course I suspect that assertiveness can sometimes be an extreme too -or am I doing it wrong?

Roache (and Aristotle) realized that virtue -appropriate assertiveness- usually needs to be learned -either from respected role models (in my case, the picture of Joan Crawford), or by strategizing ways of not being forced to make decisions without having thought them through first: using delaying tactics that don’t involve being rude if asked to do something with which you don’t feel comfortable. In the past, I would just say ‘no’ and forget about it, but after reading the article, I wonder if it’s sometimes better to give the other person a bit of false hope: dangle a ‘maybe’ in front of them, or something: be less aggressively assertive in other words.

Still, I’ve always preferred a direct approach over the years so people know where I stand. Of course that may be why I’m usually standing by myself… and living that way as well, come to think of it…


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