Am I Turning Into a Karen? The Difference Between Being ‘Assertive’ and Being ‘Difficult’

In which our guest writer Bella hopes she isn’t turning into a Karen (advance apologies to the lovely women named Karen).

Recently, I asked myself the question: am I ‘assertive’ or am I ‘difficult’? I mean, I stand up for myself and my values, but I also find conflict (particularly when it’s face-to-face) uncomfortable. I also generally don’t sweat the small stuff.

But sometimes things happen that make me wonder whether to complain: the definition of ‘complain’ being ‘to say that something is wrong or not satisfactory’. The word itself sounds whiny and demanding, but does the process have to be? How do you know what qualifies as ‘complainable’? And what if you offend someone? Am I a Karen?

An example. Over the holidays, I booked an Airbnb for four nights, in a B&B set-up. Nothing in the listing suggested we’d be sharing any spaces. On our last night, our host’s friend slept in a bedroom through the wall from ours, waking me up with a hacking cough that I worried might be a Covid symptom. I didn’t know he had emphysema til the next morning, poor guy. But should the host have asked us if it was okay for him to stay? Should she have told us his cough was emphysema not Covid? I didn’t say anything at the time. I certainly didn’t want to make an emphysema sufferer feel bad. When prompted by Airbnb to write a review, I didn’t, because the owner had been great with our son. So… I think I made the right decision?

Here’s another should-I-complain thing. One day my son’s school-holiday programme gave him five large sweet treats (cakes, muffins, biscuits), which meant he didn’t eat the healthy(ish) lunch I’d made him. Look, he gets treats from me too, but not five a day. I didn’t say anything, though, worried I was ‘being difficult’.

Also, once, a personal trainer charged me for more sessions than I’d used. When I brought it up, she took great offence, denied it, and I got really mad. I could have handled that situation better.

I once complained about a bus driver who swore at me when I asked to get off the bus (I didn’t know he didn’t usually stop at a certain stop). I eventually got an emailed response saying they’d address it, though they didn’t say how. I’ve also called a few times when buses have run reds really dangerously. Have they flagged me as a serial complainer?

Am I Karen?

The other day I had the sudden thought: am I becoming a Karen? No offence to any number of lovely people called Karen, but it’s fair to say that few babies are being named ‘Karens’ anymore, though it was the fourth-most-popular girls’ name in the 1960s.

What is a Karen? A slang term. According to one definition, “A Karen is a woman who acts entitled, expects certain privileges or special treatment, and gets angered easily. The term is often used to criticise the behaviour of self-absorbed white, affluent, and middle-aged women”. I’m white, middle-class and (coming to terms with being) middle-aged, but I don’t think I’m self-absorbed, or entitled. I certainly try not to be. Also, a Karen’s trademark line is demanding to speak to your manager, and her trademark hairstyle is an inverted bob, so… I think I’m off the hook?

I did wonder, is there a male equivalent for a Karen? According at ‘slang dictionary’ and pop-culture site, ‘a Kevin’ is “an archetype of a white, straight, man over the age of 40 who acts selfishly and without compassion”. We all know one, right? Yep. Yet I’d never heard of ‘a Kevin’ as a term, nor had anyone else I asked. Is the fact that we hear about ‘Karen’s more than we do ‘a Kevins’ problematic? If a woman who wants to question something ‘complains’, she may run the risk of being called a “Karen”. For that reason, she might not speak up at all.

Too often, and for too long, women have been told we shouldn’t complain. That we’re making something too big a deal, and not to make a fuss. So we think ‘oh we won’t say anything, because we don’t want to be difficult’.

English primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall once said, “It actually doesn’t take much to be considered a difficult woman. That’s why there are so many of us.” Preach, Jane. There’s a low bar for women being considered ‘difficult’.

Also, as women we’re usually just too damn busy to ‘make a fuss’, especially when we doubt it will make a difference.

How to approach it?

Certainly, if we’re complaining a lot, it’s most likely about us, not them. Dr Elizabeth Scott, an author, workshop leader, educator, and blogger on psychology and emotional wellbeing, has written an article called ‘Hidden Benefits and Pitfalls of Complaining’. She says “complaining is a pastime that can be found in most groups, if not most people”. Good to know. She also says complaining can play into a cycle of negativity, but also notes that “voicing frustrations in small doses, however, does have its place as a stress reliever”.

Plus sometimes it can help achieve a better outcome, depending on the situation and how it’s handled. So when voicing concerns, you might soften your words. Or present them as constructive feedback. Particularly important if you’ll be dealing with someone on an ongoing basis!

A school-guidance-counsellor recommends we say ‘I’m interested in why X happened’ rather than ‘You did X and ‘m pissed off’. So, for instance, I could say to the B&B host, “I’m interested in why you didn’t mention earlier that we’d be sharing a space with someone else? I was concerned about his cough.” Maybe it sounds a bit passive-aggressive, but hey, that’s better than sounding aggressive, right?

If you’ve handled things as best you can, and a person reacts badly, you can’t control that. You can only control what you do. And that doesn’t mean you’re a Karen.

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