Be aggressive, be be aggressive. But how aggressive?.

This week I asked for feedback on something I wrote from a trusted colleague. My audience was larger than usual for me and 100% men (as far as I knew). Although I’m already pretty confident in my prose-writing skills, I felt greater than usual pressure to make a compelling, tight story. I wanted what I wrote to sound authoritative and well informed.

My colleague gave me great constructive feedback and overall really liked what I wrote. Except one spot where I came across as harsh and somewhat arrogant.

I cringed. I know, I know. When drafting that particular point, I had literally thought to myself (knowing that I can tend to hedge too much) “Okay, try to sound very assertive and masculine.” It wasn’t me. It wasn’t my style or my voice. And it ended up sounding too abrasive.

Anyway, easy enough fix. I softened the language and sent it off to my co-authors.

But, I kept thinking about this. It really made me realize how I’m constantly monitoring how I speak and write to perfectly balance cold authority and warm personability. Whether I’m self conscious about the number of “:)” or “!” that I use in an email or my willingness to admit “I don’t know” in a meeting, it’s a perpetual struggle against my natural tendencies.

The thing is, I rarely actually feel 100% confident. But I know that my male counterparts, even when they sound totally (and sometimes absurdly) sure of themselves, they can’t possibly be so certain either! So I try to put myself in their state of mind and just fake it. If I don’t “sound technical enough”, I’d rather actually become more competent than merely sound like it, for example. That’s where my energy goes.

I don’t really like games, either, where I have to put on a guise and deceive my audience. And obviously it can be backfire coming from a woman. A woman product manager without a background in software engineering. But I don’t have patience for that and I prefer to be my honest, authentic self.

So after dwelling on this for a couple of days, I think I’ve come up with a way to determine how to strike the right tone. I’ll rehearse for my husband. I’m 100% comfortable and safe saying what I truthfully believe in a confident way to him. We’ll see how this strategy works for me the next time I’m stuck on how to phrase something in an authoritative way that still sounds like me.

Anyway, this isn’t really a theory informed blog post. It could be if I spent some minutes doing some research on gendered language in the workplace and maybe I’ll do that later. Even though as a linguist I feel a bit guilty about that, for now I wanted the gratification of finally publishing a new blog post after a few months.

How do you decide how “aggressive” to be at work?


Follow the conversation and discuss on Twitter.