When we learn to write essays or anything that’s not fiction, we’re instructed to write in the third person, matter-of-factly. We’re taught to substantiate any claims or opinions we include in our writing with expert evidence or resources written by experts. We are more or less instructed to practice assertiveness in our writing. Nowadays, however, it seems writers are conflating and confusing assertiveness with aggression when they write– especially writers who publish their work online. Why some writers do this may not be confusing. But understanding how writers conflate and confuse assertiveness and aggression in their writing might be. Alas, it’s important to pause for a moment and reflect on assertiveness vs aggression in writing.

What’s the difference between assertiveness and aggression?

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed yesterday and came across a post that Adam Grant shared. Adam Grant is a well-renowned author and professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania specializing in organizational psychology. If you haven’t read any of his books yet, I highly recommend reading the following three books he’s written so far:

  1. Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know
  2. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World
  3. Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success

In the post I came across (see the image below; click on it to see its original source) Grant differentiates between assertiveness and aggression. He states that someone is being assertive when they’re advocating for their own interests, but aggressive when they’re attacking other people’s interests. And this got me thinking about how writers often conflate and confuse the two in their own writing.

Why conflating and confusing assertiveness and aggression in writing is problematic

It’s important to pause for a moment and reflect on assertiveness vs aggression in writing, and why conflating and confusing the two is problematic.

Aggressive writing can, and often does, fuel hate and violence in real life– especially if its content is touching on topics that speak to a group of people’s fears and insecurities. And since it’s emotionally charged, the likelihood that it will be shared online rapidly increases. In addition, because pieces of aggressive writing evoke such strong emotions with conviction, they’re often accepted as pieces of factual or evidence-based writing by those falling victim to confirmation bias, even if there is no evidence or expertise supporting the claims included in them.

Assertive writing is often conflated with aggressive writing because its style is also direct. The major difference with assertive writing, however, is that it includes reputable sources and refers to experts to substantiate its claims. And while it may criticize an idea or person, it does not attack an idea or a person.

Helpful sources to read:

A checklist: how to identify when a writer conflates and confuses assertiveness and aggression

To determine whether a writer is using an assertive or aggressive writing style, answer the questions below:

  1. Is the writer attacking another person or idea, instead of criticizing a person or idea?
  2. Does the writer include sources and links to relevant experts when making claims or arguments?
  3. Does the writer evoke strong emotions of fear, anger, defensiveness, etc., in their writing?
  4. Is the writer mocking or belittling an entire group of people? Are they sarcastic and rude, but believe they’re being funny?
  5. Does the writer include general negative stereotypes about a particular group of people?
  6. Does the writer write in the third person, active voice? Or the first-person active voice?

Have something to add to the conversation about aggressive and or assertive writing? Leave a comment at the bottom of the page!