Saturday, March 28, 2009

Am I a pushy broad?

When I was a child my mother's best friend called her a "pushy broad". The nick-name was affectionate, yet, it was clear that she also meant it. Since moving to Australia I have been told many times that Americans are seen to be “pushy”, and, a few times, I’ve encountered problems with social interactions with people here because I come across as too “pushy”.

I understand where it comes from—both at home and at school we were actively taught to do "persuasive" speaking—to select a point and defend it with logical, coherent arguments. And not just at one school—remember that I moved often growing up, and attended a variety of schools in more than one state. I can remember lessons on this subject not only in different schools, but in a variety of classes—in writing classes, science classes, psychology classes, history classes, speech, etc. Being persuasive with words and logic is deeply ingrained into me, to the point where I, often, won't even notice that I am doing it. In a recent conversation with my partner (an Australian) he pointed out that he hates it when I try to talk him into doing things he doesn’t want to do, because I offer so very many reasons that he feels obliged to say “yes” and he fears that I will be annoyed with him if he says “no”. I countered that I’ve never tried to talk him into doing something that he has said he doesn’t want to do, that only if he seems undecided do I offer *all* of the ideas I can come up with in support of the answer which seems most logical to me. He then said something with truly floored me—he said that it is ingrained into him that it is bad to say “no” to things, so he tries to avoid ever saying it. In absence of his “no”’s I have been offering what feels to me like enthusiasm and positive suggestions, but feel to him like I’m being pushy and that he’s got no choice but to say “yes” or risk my ire.

Oddly enough, I don’t actually want him to feel like I’m “pushing”, sure, I’ve seen this list of reasons that I think Plan A is a good one, but I know that I’m not infallible, and, from my perspective he has always been free to either agree with me that it is a good plan, or offer counter-reasons as to things I’ve failed to consider that make it a not-so-good, or to support Plan B instead. In addition to having been taught how to support our arguments with facts, I was also taught that new facts mean it is time to reassess things, and I am very, very quick to change my mind and agree that the new information invalidates the first set of reasons (if it does) or supports Plan B as a better option (if it does). To me, an important part of “persuasive argument” is a willingness to be persuaded myself if the other party comes up with good ideas I’d not yet considered, and I don’t feel that it would be appropriate to be annoyed at another person for being successful in convincing me of their argument.

This applies to science as much as it does interpersonal relationships. You can see it in operation in an introduction to geology class:

“what type of rock is this”

“well, it is fine-grained, and black. Perhaps it is a shale?”

“yes, it is, but it comes in very thin pieces, and goes “tink-tink” when you tap two pieces of it together, not “thunk-thunk”

“Oh, then it must be a slate!”

Or in social interactions:

“I think tonight would a good night to go to the movies”

“However, there is a dance on tonight with a band visiting from Europe”

“The movie can wait, let’s go dancing!”

Although the cultural difference had been mentioned to be before this, it hadn’t really “clicked” for me until the recent conversation—I know finally understand why I (and Americans in general) are seen to be “pushy”, even though we don’t feel that we are. However, understanding the cultural differences isn’t enough to guarantee peaceful interactions and be certain that those of us who have been taught to offer all possible reasons in support of an idea don’t overwhelm those who have been taught that it is rude to ever be seen to disagree. Therefore I have a cunning plan which I will attempt to set into motion. I shall try to add a ritual phrase to my vocabulary. Something along the lines of “I like Plan A, may I share with you many of the reasons it appeals to me at this point, and you may tell me if I’ve failed to consider something which might make it less appealing, or, perhaps, lead me to prefer another plan altogether?” Hopefully, this will help “soften” my pushiness, give me the opportunity to actually share all of the wonderful arguments I’ve thought of, *and* encourage the other person to actually share their thoughts too, even if they support a totally different conclusion.

1 comment:

Beth said...

Oh, I can so relate to this! (Go figure.) Though I would say that as a cultrual issue, it's not so broad as "American" or "not American". Having gone to undergrad on the east coast, I found the style of discourse to be much more direct and confrontational than the west coast. Not that people were arguing so much as challenging. "Why do you say that? How do you defend it? Have you ever (or never) considered x?" Back on the west coast, this style is definitely seen as pushy. Especially in a business environment. Here it's all about consideration and consensus, which are good things, but can be painfully slow and/or ineffective. And I tend to be impatient and/or dismissive if people linger too long on something that seems to me to be a "bad idea" if not quickly offered evidence to the contrary. (I'm told I don't suffer fools gladly and I admit that "keep up!" has at times been a mental mantra - hubris, I suppose.)

Yet, when it comes to "pushy" I say, bring it on. I like when people push back on me. It makes me better at my game. I should be challenged - it will help me marshall, alter, or improve my arguments. And challenging others should also be approporaite - especially for colleagues. The intent is not to make you look bad, but to help you (and by extension the project or company) be better. But since I tend to speak with an air of (mispleaced?) confidence, less forceful styles can be easily overwhelmed or cowed.

Tactics I've used to soften this affect (when I remember) include couching my comments with an introductory "from my perspective" or "from what I understand so far," waiting after each point (sometimes literally counting to five in my head) to see if there is a response before going on to the next, asking point blank, "what do you think?" and paraphrasing what the othr person has said to make sure that I understood it and also to acknowledge that I have listened.