The Invisible Bear Trap

I was reading something recently that was making a point that angry women are frightening to men. Way more than angry men frighten men. Ironically, the very next day I was having lunch with a couple of male co-workers, and one of them made a very similar statement. I can’t recall exactly how it came up. But what interesting timing!

I was still mulling over what I’d read in my head, so this spurred me to ask some questions to get the opinions of the guys at lunch.

Why do you think that is?
One of them said that growing up, he was used to his dad yelling at him all the time, like if he was doing something he shouldn’t be. His dad would yell, it was short, then it was done. On the other hand his mom didn’t yell much at all. But when she did, she was REALLY mad. So her version of angry was a lot worse than his dad’s.

The other one calls this “the invisible bear trap”: when he has no idea his wife is mad, and then out of the blue she bites off his head like this invisible bear trap that comes out of nowhere.

Women don’t want to seen as “bitchy.” And we hate when we’re having a bad day because of any number of reasons, and get written off as having PMS or something (As if guys never have bad, frustrating days that have nothing to do with biological causes? Come on! 🙂 ) And I’ve seen women in leadership roles who forge through barriers to get things done, and get labeled a “bitch” for doing so. I’ve seen guys have to do that same (or worse) kind of forging through roadblocks, and not get called any kinds of bad names behind their back. Sometimes, to avoid such accusations and labels, a lot of women will try to be “nice” and “quiet” instead, and just go-along with things. But by not talking about issues and playing nice, things build up, sometimes to a boiling point. And that’s where the invisible bear trap comes from. All from just trying to be nice and “ladylike.”

Agression vs. Assertion
The most logical solution would be to not bottle things up, and assert one self when needed. The problem with this is that the line between agression and assertion is blurred.

Aggressive, adj. (from dictionary.com):
* boldly assertive and forward; pushy
* Inclined to behave in an actively hostile fashion
* Assertive, bold, and energetic

Assertive, adj. (from dictionary.com):
* confidently aggressive or self-assured; positive: aggressive; dogmatic
* Inclined to bold or confident assertion; aggressively self-assured

Notice how some of the definitions for “Agressive” use the word “Assertive” in the definition. Likewise the definitions for Assertive use the term “Agressive” in the definition. No wonder this line is blurred! Look closer at the differences and you will see the definition for “Agressive” containes the word “Hostile”, while “Assertive” contains the word “positive.”

People should strive to be assertive, not agressive; positive not hostile. But I’ve definitely seen assertive women get bad-mouthed for being agressive or argumentative. Not as often do I hear men badmouthed for assertive or argumentative behavior. Yet, I’ve heard men get praised for argumentative, “won’t take crap from anyone” behavior.

Are you more afraid of a women getting angry at you, vs. a man getting angry at you?
The consensus of the lunch group was yes. Nobody likes anyone to be angry with them. But the guys said that the thought of a man getting angry was a lot easier to take than a woman getting angry.

For comparison, I asked one of my female friends the same question. For her, it’s equally scary no matter who is angry. I agree with her, absolutely hate for anyone to be angry with me! Although I might slightly fear a man’s anger more than a woman’s. A man is typically louder, for one thing. I fear louder women, too. But, while it’s a generalization, men are typically stronger physically than women, and if verbal changed to a physical fight the woman doesn’t stand a chance. (NOTE: I am NOT saying that I’ve ever feared physical violence in the workplace! I am only saying the thought that *if* it did, there’s no equal ground, can subconsciously cross the mind. And if that might cross my mind, imagine the mind of someone else who grew up facing physical violence in the home!) These thoughts aren’t usually a factor, not until an argument gets heated or the more assertive ones are talking so much I can’t get a word in.

In addition, one of the guys at lunch added that he’s not only more afraid of woman’s anger than a man’s. But also he is more afraid of getting angry TOWARD a woman than toward another man.

So if women don’t speak up so they don’t come across agressive, and men are afraid to voice their anger toward a women, then aren’t men and women BOTH bottling things up in relation to each other?

That can’t be healthy. Doing the same thing, because they’re afraid of each other? Where does this come from? Fear of how they will react?

The unknown is always fearful. Maybe people feel like they can more accurately gauge how someone of the same gender will react to something. But if you don’t know how, or why, the other person will react, it’s scarier for sure. For the most part I can probably gauge a woman’s behavior more accurately than a man’s, because I can understand better some of the reasons behind the behavior. This may more likely be a cross-gender misunderstanding, but there’s always exceptions to the rule. I can think of female people I’ve known in the past who I could never gauge what was going to tick them off. We were just coming at the world from opposite corners of the universe. I found it easier to just keep my distance from them and speak up as little as possible around them.

Bear trap example
What about times when I want to or need to speak up and can’t?

At lunch, I decided to look back at a specific recent example where I got pretty angry about something, and both these guys happened to be arond when it happened. This is a good time to figure out what I could have done differently and could do better in the future.

A few weeks ago, someone came over to ask me something. Then we needed some more information or input and the 2 guys joined in as well. As the 4 of us talked, I noticed the first guy had the wrong idea about the way something was supposed to work. I tried to step in and correct the misconception, so we could move on with the discussion. As I did, people seemed to all be talking at once. And so I would concede and be quiet. Yet as I observed, the conversation kept on in the wrong direction based on the wrong initial assumption. “If only I could correct that, this discussion would go a lot easier,” I thought to myself. I tried to say something again. Still, everyone talking at once. I shut up. This happened several times. Each time I conceded, trying to be polite and not interrupt and let people finish. Yet by being polite, I was also getting frustrated that I was not being heard. Finally, I got a chance to say what I needed to say! Then I got interrupted with what seemed like a dispute that what I was saying was wrong, when I hadn’t even finished what I was saying! And that was the last straw. And I said “Can I finish a sentence!?” It was not nice. It was not pretty, nor polite. But after that, everyone shut up and I got to talk uninterrupted. Indeed, what I had to say did clear some things up, and the conversation continued. Why did it take all that so that I could say my piece?

I think this is a good example of the need to try to be more assertive earlier on, to avoid the agression later on. So I pondered out loud, what could I have done differently to get a word in edgewise?

One of the guys said he noticed he kept interrupting and so he stopped talking too. (I told him if he noticed that, then the bear trap shouldn’t have been so invisible, haha!) But not everyone’s so observant. After some further discussion I realized that while I always stopped talking, the other person just kept talking until I finally stopped. So I concluded that a good thing for me to try would be to not back down so quickly but keep talking longer than I would have previously, and see how that works out.

Trying out the new technique
Later, during that same lunch, we had moved on to a completely different topic and I got a chance to try this out. In this case, I wasn’t saying anything that important, but I was talking when someone else started talking. As I was just about to stop talking and let the other person speak in my stead, I consciously decided to keep talking. I didn’t work. So I kept talking. Still didn’t work. Then, as I kept talking I said “I’m going to keep talking, I’m still talking, but I guess this doesn’t really work does it?” Nobody heard me say that. At that point, I finally conceded. I shut up, we finished our lunch, and I went quietly back to work. In a way it was kind of funny, I guess because it wasn’t important. But it didn’t work.

I’ve been making a consious effort not to let one failed attempt determine that it never works. I’ve tried it MANY more times since then. At least a few times a day. I’ve only had it succeed where I get to keep talking once. And I felt bad, like I was interrupting the other person – I felt rude.

The downside of trying so hard, is that it is more frustrating than it was before. It only takes 1-2 times in a row of really trying to speak and it doesn’t work to get frustrate, where it takes many more times in a row of conceding to get as frustrated. So I’m looking for a new technique. The only thing working for the time being is to do something else to get my mind off it, and let the interrupters talk among themselves. They will usually address me again specifically when they’re done and ready for my input again. That might keep me sane for awhile. But I think I can do better than that. I’ll come up with some new ideas.

Leveraging the fear
Earlier in the lunch discussion, there was talk of whether men’s fear of angry women more than angry men could, unfortunately, contribute to the proverbial glass ceiling for women. Typically your manager has to be more assertive than your peer does. That’s what manager’s have to do. (I said assertive, not agressive.) But who wants to work for someone they’re scared of? That’s my question. And it’s a weird, maybe sad question to ponder.

I can’t help but think about how a male-authored book I’m reading, and 2 men I work with expressed the same sentiment, that this general fear isn’t going away any time soon. Even if a few people start communicating more and become better at distinguising assertion from agression, I still don’t think this fear is going away any time soon. So it seems like there’s got to be some way to leverage this in a way that’s beneficial to everyone! I’ve heard men talk about women managers and company owners who they respect, and who get things done. If they fear these women, it must be some kind of healthy fear that works out somehow, I don’t know. I respect these women, and know it can be done. I guess it gives me hope that I can be successful without being labeled a “bitch.”

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