Words of wisdom

Is it better to be confident or assertive?

I recently had a long conversation with a fellow mom about our 11 year old daughters.  We were discussing how chatty they are with us, and each other – but in school, they are quiet.  We quickly attributed it to the, shall we say, unruly boys in their 5th grade class that they find a bit overwhelming.

With my single-sex education background, I quickly got on my high horse about the virtues of all-girls’ schools where, without the influence of boys in the classroom, girls are able to grow, express themselves without fear of judgment, and ultimately gain confidence.

But is confidence the same as assertiveness? We both agreed that, while our daughters are not very assertive in school, they are confident.  So, what’s the difference?  And, is it better to be assertive or confident?

To me, confidence can be loud or quiet.  Confidence is the belief in yourself, your intelligence, character, skills, and other qualities.  Wikipedia (my go-to source of information) defines confidence as a state of being certain either that a hypothesis or prediction is correct or that a chosen course of action is the best or most effective. Self-confidence is having confidence in oneself.

Assertiveness is an ability to communicate your confidence or your position in a variety of ways. Wikipedia defines it as the quality of being self-assured and confident without being aggressive. It goes on to say that assertiveness can be a learnable skill and mode of communication.  Wikipedia expresses no opinion as to whether confidence can be learned.

I found it interesting that the definition of assertiveness actually used the word confidence.  I believe that confidence and assertiveness can be mutually exclusive.  One can surely be assertive while lacking confidence. Haven’t we all seen that person who tries to cover up their lack of confidence with bravado?  (See 5th grade boys.)  And, you can definitely be confident without being assertive – sometimes, that’s a sign of even greater confidence.

We concluded that confidence, especially in girls, is key.  We also concluded that our girls’ confidence will carry them farther than just possessing the ability to assert themselves (in the way that the boys in their class do).  Of course, do not mistake this conclusion for a statement that assertiveness doesn’t matter. One needs to be able to effectively communicate one’s position, and advocate for oneself.  This by its very nature means that one must be able to make oneself heard through the “noise”.

But the real conclusion of the conversation was that our girls will be fine.  As 11 year olds battling rambunctious 5th grade boys on a daily basis, they may be thrown for a temporary loop. But, their confidence in themselves and their brains will get them where they need to go.  When those boys quiet down and listen, they will surely find that our girls have many interesting things to say.

Please share your thoughts with me here.


6 thoughts on “Is it better to be confident or assertive?

  1. Very interesting post Jane! As the mother of a 9-year-old I tune in to the same thing yet I also find myself still exploring this idea as an adult. People who exude quiet confidence definitely make me sit up and take notice the further along in my career I go ….

  2. Grandpa Barry

    Nice piece Jane. With 3 boys, confidence and assertiveness were not much of an issue. If anything it was the opposite – over confidence & overly assertive.

  3. Phil Konecki

    Nice writing Jane – a quick comment: assertiveness is often more powerful when it is quiet – abandoning the need to bring others around to your viewpoint and simply respecting others’ as well (and as importantly) as your own. Being confident then (in what you know and that you may not know it all, therefore acknowledging the need for input from others) is what I would value over assertiveness. It may be a bit deep for a third grade classroom (and sometimes a boardroom), but I find those that understand the need to be confident in themselves as well as others tend to have more fulfillment in their lives.

  4. George

    Hi Jane,

    Thank you for sending me your piece. It’s interesting.

    It seems to me that a little self confidence and assertiveness helps you get ahead. A lot makes you a pain in the neck.

    By the way, while I’m sure your all XX alma maters were great, I doubt unisex schools are best for most children. Much of the push for equal rights in the past 100 years has focused on getting females into formerly all male bastions of higher education and privilege.


    Your cousin who went to Oberlin, the first college in the country to admit blacks in women.

  5. I truly believe being confident in oneself is a God given skill. Being assertive at the appropriate times requires intelligence, another skill, I feel by knowing when to be assertive is most imperative. In other words Confidendence to me outlays assertiveness bc your being assertive when necessary.

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