“Bossy” is not the R-Word

Beyonce and Sheryl Sandberg are two women I am not eager to take issue with–I admire them both. I want my daughter–and son–to admire them, too. The two women are smart, independent, confident and successful people who run huge business enterprises with effectiveness, and, probably, with grace and compassion. Maybe they bring the hammer down, too, now and again, when they’re not getting the results they want. Bosses do that sometimes.

They have this new campaign to “Ban Bossy,” because words matter and apparently by middle school, some girls are not eager to be leaders because they fear being called “bossy.” Hmmm.

Look–I don’t want my children or my nieces or nephews or any other child to be called a name out of animosity or as an unintentional put-down. I don’t want any child hurt because of the ignorant or intended use of a hurtful word. Try using the R-word in front of me. I will bring the hammer down on your psyche.

But a girl being called bossy? Maybe I’m a jerk, but it doesn’t concern me. What concerns me is what a girl’s reaction to the word might be… what any person’s reaction might be to a word that is neither cruel nor vile.

I say this, as a likely jerk (but not a cruel nor vile one), because I too, have been called bossy. The thing is, I am quite content with *being* bossy. I’m good at it. And to all the girls (and women) out there who don’t like to be or don’t want to be called bossy?

Get ready for some advice from a middle-aged bossy pants. (Advice, not law. My opinion, not fact. If you’re a bossy girl like me, you probably love rules. But what I’m about to say? Ignore it or lap it up, I’m okay with either.) Here goes.

If you’re being called bossy, it’s for one of two reasons: 1) you’re being a bad boss, and the person using the word has a limited vocabulary and intends to say something else, or 2) you’re being a good boss, and the person using the word just doesn’t feel like being bossed by you.

If it’s reason number 2 — well, relax. You can’t change that. Maybe play a different game, or try another tactic. (Read on, this will make sense in a couple paragraphs.)

But what’s a girl to do with reason number 1?

For starters, what’s a bad boss? Well, a bad boss loves, or needs, to be around people who agree with her and do things for her. A bad boss doesn’t communicate her goals or needs very well, and kind of expects people to just *know.* A bad boss is quick to lose her temper and punish her subordinates rather than help them improve. A bad boss tends to speak loudly, and not very nicely, to the people she bosses. A bad boss takes credit for the good others do, and blames others when she makes a mistake.

And a good boss? Well, she’s basically the opposite of all that above. She likes to surround herself with people who think differently some, if not all the time. She’s actually a bit suspicious of those who are too nice to her, too eager to do what she wants. She is always very clear about what she wants, and is eager to learn what other people want. She doesn’t lose her temper very often, and if she does, it’s for a damn good reason. Mostly though, she wants to help people be better at whatever they’re doing. She tends to speak less and listen more. She will take the blame for her subordinates without hesitation, and she will give (and broadcast) credit to those same folks freely. She shares. She knows she’s not perfect. She’s knows she’s not alone.

Come to think of it, she sounds a lot like a good friend (just one who is ultimately accountable and has a certain level of power over you).

So. If somebody calls you bossy, know that yes, you are a leader, you are comfortable being in charge, you have high expectations, you are ambitious, all that good stuff. But… Yes, “but.”

If somebody calls you bossy, you–as all effective leaders do–need to look at yourself. Think about how you’re treating people. Sometimes people say “bossy” when they mean “dismissive” or “impatient” or “self-centered.” You know, that bad-boss vibe.

And kids don’t always have the best or most accurate vocabulary. Sometimes they just mean “mean.” Are you listening to others and caring about their opinions? Are you being patient? Are you treating your friends well? Do your friends just want a chance to be in charge, too? Are you sharing? Are you acknowledging that you might not be right?

I don’t want to hurt your feelings with this advice, and I especially don’t want the word “bossy” to hurt your feelings. I want all the bossy girls out there to *own* their bossiness, and know that they always have a choice: be a good boss, or be a bad boss.

After all, being called “bossy” didn’t stop Sheryl Sandberg, did it? I’m guessing that she’s an excellent boss, at least most of the time (being human, and all).

Banning  the word “bossy” won’t change much. Hearing “leadership skills” instead of “bossy” won’t make you a better leader, a better boss, or even a better friend.

Leadership. Friendship. These are actions. They are the result of learned behaviors.

So be bossy, already. Be a friend. Lead, listen, and learn. Lean in, too, if you want.

Just always be willing to be better at it.

**Updated** Just watched this ABC news piece on first-grade girls’ reactions to the word. Girls in that television segment seemed to understand that it was a *behavior* that was evoking a negative reaction from the person using the word “bossy.” “People don’t like to be bossed around.” Exactly, little girl. I’ll say this in another way. For some reason, there are women out there who have been called “bossy” and it didn’t change their ambitions. There are girls like that, too: 2/3 of them, per the research cited. Rather than banning a word, how about we focus on what makes those 2/3 less concerned about the word?

“then go do it.”

Sheryl Sandberg’s group has a tumblr, “What Would You Do If You Weren’t Afraid?” It’s been up and running for a while, so yes, I admit I am a bit late to the LeanIn party.

But here I am. I watched the video about the campaign, or movement. A lot of women, expressing things I’ve thought, and felt, in different ways and at different times. Here’s what I might contribute (if I weren’t afraid?):

  • If I weren’t afraid (and annoyed by a choir director) I would have pursued a skill when I was much, much younger. I got some pipes, you see. If I had worked at it, pursued it, and stood up to the choir director who insisted on having me sing soprano because I could, even though I knew (and she totally knew) I had a broader range, I think I could have, at the very least, with a lot of luck and abject (though temporary) poverty, been a moderately successful backup singer. Or, you’d be singing along to me, alone, right now on the radio, or in the shower. Who knows. Stranger vocalists have been stuck in my head.
  • If I weren’t afraid, I would have gone into some serious debt and attended Columbia University for my graduate degree. But I said no. I hated the thought of being in debt, living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. I remained in Madison, Wisconsin, (nothing to sneeze at!). If I had gone, it stuns me how different things might have been: the job, the home base, the family? All I can think, though, is that I wouldn’t have had our specific kids. (That doesn’t just stun me. It slays me.)
  • If I weren’t afraid, I would tell everybody I knew that I am the fastest editor, the fastest processor of information, the quickest wit, the quickest study, the best-est everything when it comes to any topic I remotely care about. (I care about a lot of topics.) I would tell them this, because it is true. Instead, I show them, perhaps too quietly, but perhaps more effectively than just using my voice (pretty as it is). (I tend to trust a person based on what they do and show, versus what they say and intend, don’t you?)

I appreciate what Ms. Sandberg is trying to cultivate among women. I do. Being afraid because of what you’ve been conditioned to accept (don’t be ‘bossy,’ be ‘nice,’ be ‘likable’)–that’s unacceptable. We’ve got to get over that, just on principle.

I for one, am over that. If I think there’s a good way to do something, I will say so. I’ll do it as nicely as I can. If you don’t like me, I probably don’t like you, either. I like most people. Most like me.

A friend of mine, my age (43) has just relocated from the midwest to the Rockies, because his wife got a great job. They just upped and moved. I was very, very impressed.

I could do that, you know. I could tell my husband, “Hey, I want to go and pursue a dual career, singing at night and writing and editing political commentary by day, so we need to move to either New York, DC, or London.” He would do that. He said so.

That floors me. I think, “I can’t do that. We have to save, we have to have a six-if-not-12-month cash reserve, we have to sell this house and absorb a likely loss (damn you, housing bubble!), we have two children who should be able to enter college without assuming soul-crushing debt, we could have a health emergency, we could have some other emergency I haven’t yet thought of…”

The list goes on.

“Go do it.” Just go do whatever you’re afraid of, intones Ms. Sandberg.

That’s brilliant, right? I watch that video (linked above) and I just want to roar with confidence. I do, I’m not snarking, here, I promise.

Thing is, it’s not a lack of will that is keeping me from doing what I want and being all I can be. I am not afraid of “doing.” I am wary of the impact and costs of my actions, not on and for me, but on and for others.

Ms. Sandberg is creating a movement assuming our fear, our womanly insecurities, drive us, or hold us back. They don’t. We are not suffering from a collective crisis of confidence.

But it sure sounds that way, when you ask a certain question.

So maybe the question to pose is not “What would you do if you were not afraid?” It’s not even, if we follow the risk assessment line of thinking, “What would you do if you had nothing to lose?” (There’s no shame, no weakness, in wanting to protect and maintain what you have, especially if you don’t have all that much. That’s what they call “rational.”)

The question(s) to ask women, the answers to which would be more instructive–and less, dare I say, though many already have, woman-blaming:

“What is at stake when you consider change? Who can help you lower the stakes? Who can help them?”

You know, health insurance companies, and our soon-to-be-in-use health exchanges (not a tangent, bear with me), they don’t just assume more risk. They want to dilute their risk pool with people that have a lot of “health.”

This social movement, this women’s movement, that Ms. Sandberg wants to maintain or accelerate? It seems, superficially, four or so months in, to be comprised of lots of women who have, relatively, little to risk, or far less at stake.

Ms. Sandberg is, in fact, brilliant. She’s created a low-risk operation with a high rate of return.

I wonder what Ms. Sandberg would do for other women if she had far less at stake.

Opting In… if it’s still an Option

Best thing I’ve read in a while:

The Opt-Out Generation Wants Back In – NYTimes.com.

Thank you very much, Judith Warner. I can see a part of myself in every one of these women. And that is why, just over the past several weeks, I am doing what I need to do to get back in the game, as a starter, not a benchwarmer. (I cannot believe I just used a sports metaphor.)

I am lucky. I have a husband who knows I want to get back to work. He knows his employment trajectory has made that complicated for me to just “do.” When I have the occasional and short-lived crisis of confidence, he reminds me that I do not need to compare myself to Sheryl Sandberg or June Cleaver. He reminds me that the only thing that matters is what I want to do and how I want to do it. He has utter faith and complete confidence in me and my abilities.

I am lucky.

And this lengthy, well-worth-the-time and perfectly timed article reminds me to do three things, always.

1. Know who you are. Your worth is not defined by your spouse, your job, or your children.

2. Invest in and protect your marriage. If you feel unequal, or equal, say so. If you feel happy, or unhappy, say so. Expect the same of your partner. Work to level things out. Spouses may take turns in life doing different things, but it’s not okay to take turns in feeling inadequate or unhappy.

3. Don’t be complacent. Remember to wonder what could happen next. Marriages can end, jobs can be lost, health can be compromised. Stop and smell the roses, be in the moment, but don’t wear rose-colored glasses, don’t let anything pass you by.