Not getting angry is really all the rage these days

May 14, 2004

Don't lose your rag, especially if you're female. Take a breath and seize your moment calmly, says Susan Bassnett.

As soon as I heard a shrill female voice shouting that she was not incompetent or dishonest, I knew Beverley Hughes was a goner. For whatever the former minister may or may not have done with regard to immigration, she had broken one of the unspoken rules governing the behaviour of professional women: she had lost her temper publicly. The expressions of support from male colleagues turned swiftly into thanking her for her efforts as she left office.

Universities tend to reflect parliamentary practice, and codes of behaviour are remarkably similar. Part of the code is the controlled insult: British MPs don't punch one another on the floor of the House, they stick knives into each other verbally, and so do academics. The killer phrase, "with respect" is a sure sign that no respect at all is felt by the speaker.

"May I remind Dr X" is another phrase that carries repressed violence, implying that Dr X's forgetfulness is not at all innocent. And nobody outside academia would believe the level of aggression couched in literate language in some university memos.

The game-playing with words, the verbal sparring and the double standard operating over raised voices are often harder for women to negotiate. Men are allowed to lose their tempers. Angry women, however, are labelled as hysterical, their views dismissed, the cause of their anger, however righteous, seen as less significant than the fact that they were unable to argue their case calmly.

So what should a woman do if she feels enraged in a meeting? First, decide whether it is going to be worth the fallout if you do lose your temper.

Occasionally, if it happens very rarely, a good shout can have impact, but if you do it often, it will lose all power and you'll be labelled an unreliable hysteric. So if it isn't worth the price, leave the room, and go and do some deep breathing while you calm down and reflect on your next move. Your moment will come. Seize it calmly and you will have all the more authority.

Next, consider the value of silence. This is complex since academics trade in words all the time, and speaking out is a way of asserting one's presence, so that people who tend to be quiet can feel overlooked.

Nevertheless, over the years I have noticed that women (and some wise men) who don't exercise their vocal muscles all the time and who wait for an opportune moment to speak are actually heard, and what they have to say is often treated with respect. The same applies to students: often the silent ones who don't try to dominate discussions produce the wisest insights and the best essays. Silence does not have to be a sign of distance or non-presence, it can also be a sign that someone is concentrating on everything being said, absorbing opinions and shaping ideas at their own pace.

Some years ago there was a vogue for assertiveness training for women. I've never met a female academic who needed such a course, though I have met some who would out-do Rambo for aggressiveness. But I have met a lot of (sad to say, mainly male) academics who have little understanding of the assertiveness that comes through calm, measured responses, as opposed to the table-thumping I-am-absolutely-right-and-will-brook-no-opposition assertiveness.

These days, where more emphasis is being placed on leadership qualities and good teaching is by consensus, not by fear, qualities other than shouting are gaining ground. It takes skill to keep your temper under pressure, effort to maintain calm (or an appearance of calm) in a difficult meeting or an unruly classroom, and women can really shine here. I have an old autograph book from early last century belonging to one of my great-aunts.

Inside the front cover, it says: "It is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt." Pity so many public figures don't heed that advice!

Susan Bassnett is professor at the Centre for Translation and Comparative Cultural Studies, Warwick University.

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