The Tough Meme: “Telling It The Way It Is.”


The changing political discourse around the world and the election of a new “Leader of The Free World” made me go looking for some thought bubbles I had written on people who like to present a tough face to the world. Here’s one:

There are people who define themselves* as blunt, direct, telling it the way it is, etcetera. They have the ‘tough’ meme and just as often it’s associated memes that assist in shaping their behaviour.  There are several possibilities to look for when explaining their behaviour. One is that they are  a little sociopathic and really don’t care what you think. A second is that they are low on ‘Agreeability’, one of the big five personality factors. Or perhaps you consider they have low ‘Emotional Intelligence’ and just don’t get how discussion works and generally screw up relationships. Maybe each of these explanations provides some insight. Regardless, we will recognize that they have had success with authoritarian strategies. They are openly giving themselves permission to not take into account others feelings, values or opinions. If they think it necessary then they are also giving themselves permission to bully others. They see no problem with this. If it is authoritarianism at work then do not be surprised if the same person is submissive in the company of somebody they deem higher status and who has authority in their world. If they have been in senior positions a long time then it is also likely that they have received very little accurate feedback on their behaviour, making matters worse.

As if to make their position okay, they will invite you to be blunt with them – it is also a suggestion that they are tougher than you. They mean it … right up until you are blunt with them. In reality, they are inviting you, if foolish enough, to fight/argue/arm wrestle with them in their quest to demonstrate their dominance – tougher, smarter and able to beat you. Alternately they are asking you to demonstrate how naive or stupid you are. In any case, it is likely you will end up in a losing position. How ‘right’ you are does not matter. Most people recognize this and realize that ʻfaceworkʼ is required to not end up being chastised or in a damaging conflict.

If you have to deal with these people then get your best negotiating and communications skills out, structure the interaction if you can, ask appropriate questions, keep the interaction short and be as specific as possible about anything you agree to. Document it! If the person happens to be your manager then the risk is you leave with ambiguous information, an ambiguous task, and with ambiguous deliverables.

Blunt is not to be confused with someone who is assertive. It is likely a socially healthy and assertive person will give ample opportunity for you to speak and listen. Context is everything.

* When somebody describes somebody else as ‘telling it the way it is’ then we have a different situation. It can mean that the person will say what might embarrass others but none the less needs to be said. They may be neither blunt, fearless, direct nor bullying when they speak this way.



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