“Not bad for a couple of bossy, old, gals!” said one of my co-workers, slapping her hand on the heavily varnished table.
We had spent the better part of an afternoon solving some of the world’s problems. Like a couple of fire hoses, we sprayed heavy streams of action items and deliverables onto large-scale post-it notes that hung like a cock-eyed portrait gallery around the boardroom.
It was, after all, a brainstorming session: emphasis on the word “storm”.
I’ve heard “imperial.” That was from a former boss who was trying to put me back in my place. She could smell the pheromones of ambition wafting off of me from a mile away.
Then there was “intimidating” from a neighbour with whom I only exchanged pleasantries. Apparently wearing no makeup while carrying a steaming a bag of dog pooh did nothing for my public relations.
My all-time favourite though, was “overbearing.” That one was entirely my fault. In University, I cleaned my roommate’s side of the room once without her permission. If I had it to do over I would not have gotten so carried away. But I was young and stupid, and had no idea how much vacuum cleaning energy I would need to save for later in life.
Of course that is no doubt a two-sided coin of regret. Somewhere in the world there is an overworked pathologist—married with a couple of kids—nursing a glass of wine, staring at the dust caribou in the corner, remembering a certain overbearing roommate with much fondness and affection.
But packing up my laptop, the words “bossy” and “old” still ringing in my ears, I wasn’t sure which of the two irritated me more. Reasonably confident that forty didn’t officially qualify as “old”, certainly not from a septuagenarian’s vantage point, I dealt only with the b-word.
“I prefer assertive,” I said, peeling the giant post-it notes off the wall. She politely acknowledged the fresh spin I’d put on our mutual character flaw. But, at the seasoned age of 70, clearly she was at peace carrying the banner for bossy women everywhere. For my part, I wasn’t ready to join her on the parade.
The situation worsened when I returned home to cry on my husband’s shoulder. Instead of a sympathetic ear and a good cuddle I got this piece of uncensored truth: “If the shoe fits.”
Jack Nicholson, as it turns out, was right. I absolutely could not handle the truth.
“I guess I should just run out and buy a Little Miss Bossy T-shirt!” I shrieked. “Correction: I should call someone who works for me, bark orders from my mobile phone that the T-shirt be special-ordered ‘Like yesterday!’ while driving down the highway erratically, snapping my fingers wildly in all directions.”
Isn’t that what bossy people do?
Having the capacity to “kick some ass”, or scoring high on the “creating outcomes” scale, can be a good thing, in the right proportions. Does it have to be seen as entirely negative, or as a wholly defining characteristic?
I see myself as more of a main course of “self-confidence” with a dollop of bossy, on the side, and only on special occasions.
Maybe the truth wouldn’t bother me so much if being labeled bossy didn’t make me feel so unfeminine.
In fact, it makes me feel downright masculine: as though I should be wearing a trucker’s watch with a thick leather band, studded with metallic spikes like a Rottweiler’s collar, monitoring my chest for wiry hairs that might be cropping up unexpectedly.
“You’re a very...” (awkward pause) “You’re a very...”
Moving his arms in a circular motion, staring at the ceiling, he was on a celestial quest for the perfect word. We didn’t have an agenda for the meeting, but still, the sudden tangent caught me by surprise.
Because of his exalted position on the food chain, I had resigned to politely accept whatever adjective was about to crash through the ceiling tiles bounce off his lips and onto me, skewering the remnants of my delicate psyche. (Yes, even assertive people can have moments of fragility.)
I was quietly praying: please say, “amazing” or “smart” or “energetic”—please pick anything out of that basket of banality that will do no harm.
During the long wait for this whopper of a word I started to feel sick to my stomach. The fearful anticipation brought on an acute case of cramps. If he didn’t give birth to his “mot juste” pretty soon, I was definitely going to shit my pants.
Finally, he clasped his hands together and looked at me. I gripped the cold metal arms of the chair…waiting for it…waiting…
“You’re a very… intense person.”
I exhaled. The cramps subsided—albeit only slightly. Thank God he didn’t say “bossy.”
Ever the optimist, I secretly hoped he saw me on the “passionate” “concentrated” “strong” end of intense, versus the “extreme” or “severe” side of it. But I couldn’t help but feel actual hairs poking through the previously smooth epidermis of my chest.
“Watch your tone Mr. Bossy!” I said to my son as he chastised me for my messy room and not putting the cap back on my razor.
“Someone is going to get hurt!” he shot back, indignant, sounding like a small, male version of me.
And don’t think I haven’t considered that this might actually work out in his favour in the long run. Who knows how much longer the bossy-male-good/bossy-female bad paradigm will persist? I’m guessing another century at least.
Joseph has a clear, confident, articulate voice and he’s not afraid to use it. Once he learns how to harness all that authoritative energy, the sky’s the limit for this kid.
There he’ll be; my beautiful, bossy little boy, going assertively—with great intensity—to all the places his mother couldn’t.
And if it puts more hair on his chest, then all-the-better! I’ll be proud to say that the puncture wounds of all the silly labels I’ve been pigeon-holed with through the years will have been entirely worth it in the end.
And if chest hair’s not back in style by then, Joe knows where to find the razor… and he won’t even need to bother with the safety cap.