Cards, Meet Table
On being direct.
I am direct. I say what I mean and mean what I say.
I wasn’t always this way. I am extraordinarily gifted at figuring out what people want, and I used to think it was my obligation to give it to them. Denying my own self: what I believed, what I wanted… especially what I wanted… seemed to be the price of being in relationship.
Those days are over.
I was very direct as a professional, and that served me well in the labor movement. I knew how to play every game and play it well, and everyone from the members to the unorganized workers to the management attorneys and representatives knew that I was for real. We play our cards right of course, but you have to establish trust, and the way to do that is by getting to the point and sticking to it.
Since I left the labor movement I have worked for organizations where directness was not the culture. I am amazed at what an obstacle to getting anything done it can be when no one will say what they mean. Whether it’s fear of offending management or just a culture of backstabbing, refusal to be direct can be toxic.
Direct doesn’t have to be mean - quite the reverse. Creating a culture where feedback is fast and honest but respectful helps people get things done AND feel secure at work. No one wants to find out three days later that they are in trouble for something they said at a meeting and didn’t even realize there was a problem. That makes people walk on eggshells, increases stress at work and prevents people from contributing honestly.
One area of life in which I have been quite direct is my romantic dealings with men. I say men because I am straight as an unbent arrow. I learned in middle school that the best way to get a guy you want is to walk right up to him and make some kind of move. I have always been attracted to smart guys, and in middle school they were very shy (Some still are. Some aren’t.)
These days are not that different from middle school. As I’ve said before, a lot of men are concerned about being perceived as too aggressive or even as harassing. The easy way to avoid that is for women who wish to date men to make to make our intentions clear. Now I don’t go up to random men and pull their hair and drag them back to my cave (yet) but I’m pretty much to the point.
I’m also to the point when it seems like we don’t want the same thing, and I really appreciate it when other people are, whether it’s in business or art or friendships or romantic relationships. It’s just so much better to be clear. When a role at a job isn’t working out: talk about it, can you figure it out, if not, make an exit plan that is fair to everyone.
It usually turns out that when people are direct, everyone can get something of what they want, even if they don’t get all of what they want (or what they think they want, which is the topic for an entire other entry.) Sometimes on a job, it’s a good idea to move from full to part time, or to a consulting/contractor relationship. Sometimes it’s best to call it a day but it’s never good to burn bridges. And most of my best friends are exes.
Women often have a hard time being direct. I think there is a basic evolutionary reason for this. Throughout history, when women have said things that other people don’t want to hear, they have risked being physically harmed. You can’t get around the fact that biological men are almost always going to be bigger and stronger than biological women. Women live with this every day or our lives, whether we’ve been physically assaulted or not. Women learn early on that the price of saying no directly to a man may be violent retribution. Even though the vast majority of men do not hit women, just enough of them do to make it a scary possibility.
When I was a young girl growing up in the South (born 1974 in Durham, NC, daughter of two Duke PhDs in Biblical Studies for context), directness was not rewarded. I learned how to be a good girl, people please, play the elaborate theater of politeness that was and in some places still may be the South. I had one funny advantage though, one that has just started to really become clear to me recently.
I was the smart one. My cousin was the pretty one. For the early years of my life, though my mother thought I was beautiful (thanks Mom!) I wore glasses and was not a blonde, tanned pretty girl. I was freaking brilliant though. (Thanks genetics and environment! Thanks for all those talks about Greek and Roman history Dad! Living in the library where you worked Mom! Let’s show some love to our parents round about Mother’s and Father’s Day.) As a smart girl, I could get away with a bit more directness than the pretty could.
Later on when I moved to a magnet middle school for smart kids and became queen of the nerds, I discovered that to smart men, I was quite pretty indeed. It still holds, 35 years later, and non-smart men and I have a comfortable arrangement where I’m not interested in them and they’re not interested in me. But as to the smart ones - I held my own in debate in the Yale Political Union, in union organizing, in whatever. And I did so by being, among other things, very direct.
Now this doesn’t always go as well as one might hope. Even I read the tea leaves wrong now and again (I’d say every fifteen years) and make a bold move that doesn’t work out. Or doesn’t work out immediately, or the way I thought it would. When that happens, one must simply move on, recognizing that for whatever reason, sometimes either someone isn’t really interested or they’ve been kidnapped by aliens. One takes these things like a lady and goes on to spend one’s time and energy with people who actually know what to do with it. In my case, those other people who are, at the risk of repeating myself, direct.
Fear of giving offense has risen to hysterical proportions in this country, as my next entry will illustrate. We have come up with a host of obfuscations and everyone from journalists to professors to elementary school teachers are afraid of losing their jobs and even lives because they said the wrong thing. I don’t like bullying no matter who is doing the bullying. You make your argument, I’ll make mine. I’d much rather sit down for coffee and have a vibrant discussion with someone I disagree with than get yelled at in the streets or hide in my apartment afraid to even put fingers to keyboard.
I love people who say what they mean. With whom you know where you stand. It doesn’t hurt if they have good grammar too but these days I realize that might be too much to ask of most people. But I ask for it anyway.
And you know what I’ve found? Usually, when I ask for what I want, I get it.
This flower gets straight to the point.
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