“Ask For What You Want”: Why Some Women Have a Hard Time Telling You the Truth

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It’s a joke. It’s a famous joke.

“Where do you want to eat tonight?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Anywhere.”

“Okay. Subway?”

“No.”

Okay then, so not anywhere?

“Applebee's? Outback Steakhouse? Gibson’s Pub?”

“No, no, no.”

Finally, the man guesses where the woman really wants to go for dinner. The punchline is that she knew all along. She just made him guess! All women are like this! All women are crazy!

Here’s another famous one.

Comedian: So I ask, “Are you okay?” and she says, “I’m fine.” GUESS WHAT? SHE’S NOT FINE.

“If a woman tells you she’s fine, she’s not fine.”

It’s on T-shirts, for crying out loud. A woman’s inability to communicate directly, in plain language, is famous. We laugh at comedians and assume this is inevitable. The hemming, the hawing. The mind games, the guessing games, the whiplash of misunderstanding. Women are just “like this.” Apparently, it’s in our DNA.

Except it isn’t.

The History of Silence

“A proper wife should be as obedient as a slave.” — Aristotle

“It is the law of nature that woman should be held under the dominance of man.” — Confucius

“Nature intended women to be our slaves… they are our property; we are not theirs. They belong to us, just as a tree that bears fruit belongs to a gardener…. Women are nothing more than machines for producing children.” — Napoleon

“A wife should have no feelings of her own, but share her husband’s seriousness and sport, his anxiety and his laughter.” — Plutarch

“The whole education of women ought to be relative to men. To please them, to be useful to them, to make themselves loved and honored by them, to educate them when young, to care for them when grown, to council them, to console them, and to make life agreeable and sweet to them — these are the duties of women at all times, and should be taught them from their infancy.” — Jean Jacques Rousseau

Spanning centuries and civilizations, these are the opinions of some of the greatest thinkers in history. Confucius lived in 500s BCE. Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in the late 1700s. Across two thousand years of history and thought, not much changed in the opinion of these philosophers. Women were for men.

This is the tradition of a woman’s life. To live vicariously through her husband, to do whatever “the others” wanted. Her own needs were meant to be silent.

Imagine this question in 500s BCE. Husband, to his slave-level wife, “How are you?”

What’s the honest answer? “My feet hurt. I’m exhausted. I burnt my hand on your dinner and you didn’t even eat it all. If I don’t please you, however, you might hit me or throw me out of the house.” What will she say? “I’m feeling wonderful, husband, thank you for asking.”

A lie. To protect.

What about in the 1700s? A wife was less of a slave then, but she was still trained from a young age to exist for the male ego. Patterns of behavior had been passed down to her from her mother. From her grandmother.

“How are you?” the husband asks.

This 1700s wife has a little more agency. Perhaps she and her husband are even in love. Nevertheless, her duty, her perception in society strains at her constantly. She can’t disappoint this man. She can’t make his life hard. If she does, she will be seen as a failure.

At the same time, she’s irritated. She bears so much in silence, all for his comfort. She can’t stomach the smiling lie of the 500s BCE woman. She wants her husband to know she hurts. She wants to poke him with it, make sure he’s aware of it. On the exterior, however, decorum must be met. She must be perfect, at least in her words. The perfect wife is never upset.

“How are you?”

“I’m fine.”

The words are correct. Society’s expectation has been met. But in her land of lies, she’s getting tired. She wants him to feel guilty. She’s suffering, and he doesn’t seem to care. This isn’t fair. She struggles between the honesty of her own feelings and the fact that he doesn’t seem to notice when she’s aching. Doesn’t he understand? She can’t just tell him plainly. It isn’t right. She isn’t allowed.

“I’m fine. I’m fine. I’m fine.”

Her daughter sees her act this way. Her granddaughter sees her daughter act this way. Her granddaughter says it, too.

“I’m fine.”

The cycle continues.

“I’m fine.” I can’t tell you what I really want. What I really need. I. am. not. allowed.

Please guess it. Please. Please infer it. Listen to my mind games. Please infer what I need, because I cannot ask for what I want.

It is not allowed.

A woman’s inability to tell you what she wants isn’t cute. It’s a two thousand year old generational curse, passed from woman to woman. It is an unconscious, ingrained coping mechanism from a time where women had no agency at all.

Ask Directly

My mentor always tells me, “Ask for what you want. Directly. Use simple language. State it absolutely, until there’s no room for doubt. Ask. Always ask. Never get frustrated or hurt until you have asked directly for what you want.”

A coworker recently talked through a problem with me. A man was making her uncomfortable and she wanted him to move desks. That was the end goal: Tim needs to move desks. She asked me what she should say to HR.

Here’s what I’m thinking of saying, she typed. “I’m having a really hard time today. I’m feeling stressed. Tim has been acting weird. He keeps asking me questions when I’m trying to do my job, and yesterday he was really pushy about something.” Is that good? Is that enough?

Huh?

What else? I said. Didn’t you want Tim’s desk moved?

Um…aren’t I asking for Tim to be moved?

But she wasn’t. She thought she was being direct, because for women, being direct is a new language.

Hey, no, I responded. You need to say, “Tim is harassing me. I can provide concrete examples. I am requesting that we move his desk or my desk to another floor.”

Oh, she said. Like — that direct.

We have been forced into silence for thousands of years. Our ability to control our own lives is a few decades old.

I knew countless women growing up who, when I didn’t read their minds and infer what they needed, dissolved into neediness and hurt feelings. They guilt tripped me for not being a mind-reader. It caused me untold stress, frustration, and shame. No doubt, it does a similar thing to men.

It’s not fair to the people in our lives, both male and female, if we fail to communicate directly. This is not something our loved ones should have to “put up with.” It doesn’t make sense anymore because the rules have changed.

Even more, a woman’s inability to communicate directly hurts her. What moments is she missing, what advantages are passing her by, because she is waiting for someone else to infer her needs and hand them to her?

Ladies — we have been set free. We’re in a brave new world. We run our lives, now. We get to feel our own damn feelings and then go get what we want. Ask for a raise, ask for Tim to move desks, and ask for more respect. Life is too short to waste time on implication. Ask for what you want. Every day. In plain, direct language.

Watch the world shift.

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