Lively debates over a virtual cuppa

Ban bossy? Not so fast, say our experts

an illustration of Kari Winter and Amanda Nickerson faces in the foam of two cups of coffee

Kari Winter, left, and Amanda Nickerson. Illustrations: Chris Lyons, BFA ’81

“Verbal bullying has more of an impact on people’s self-esteem than the physical kind.”
Amanda Nickerson
associate professor and director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention

Now that Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg has gotten women to lean in, she’s on to her next campaign: banning the word bossy. Sandberg believes girls get called bossy when a boy would be called a leader, eventually crippling girls’ desire to lead. “Ban bossy” has gotten a lot of support—from corporations, Girl Scouts of the USA, even Beyoncé. But it has its critics too, many of whom think girls and women should simply take ownership of the word.

We asked Kari Winter, professor of transnational studies and director of the Gender Institute, and Amanda Nickerson, associate professor and director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention within the Graduate School of Education, what they think of the campaign.

Kari Winter: I think Sandberg is raising important issues. We all need to be more conscious of the ways in which we are pushing boys and girls into different kinds of behavior, and punishing and rewarding them in inequitable ways. However, censorship is not an effective way to deal with social change. The women’s movement, like the civil rights movement, has strategies for dealing with painful terms of abuse. One of them is to take the word and claim it, to reframe it in positive ways, because it simply is not effective to try to censor words. It invites a kind of “governmentality” that is far more dangerous to society than a word.

Amanda Nickerson: I agree. We want to open the dialogue, not police it. That said, I couldn’t come up with a two-word way to say what I think needs to happen, so good for them for coming up with something. But I think it’s the dialogue, the interchange, that’s going to do much more than just going around and saying “ban bossy.” I actually think we should be using words like bossy to describe both boys and girls when they’re behaving in a way that is cutting off other people’s ideas or opinions. I know I’ve used that word before with my boys, but the way I say it is, “You know, that sounded a little bossy to me. How do you think the other kids are going to feel when they say something and you come out with that? What could you say instead?”

KW: It would be helpful if people reflected on the qualities they want to cultivate in children. The word I come up against all the time is “leader,” and I don’t hear any accompanying—what kind of leader? Hitler was a leader. Stalin was a leader. There is no connection between being a leader and being a good human being. I’m not interested in cultivating a leader in my son. I’m interested in cultivating kindness, compassion. I’d much rather hear those kinds of words in relation to cultivating children’s capacities than either the word bossy or leader.

AN: I haven’t thought about it that way and I’m not sure that I entirely agree. When I think of leader, I think of someone who is able to inspire others and move toward a goal. But I agree that having these kinds of conversations is important. I’m all for anything that will let us take pause about the words we use and how we treat others.

KW: One of the interesting things about language is the way in which the same word in a different context will have a very different effect. Children in particular are extremely adept at hearing what is meant, not just what is said. And children, like all of us but more so, can be very fragile. They can have really good feelings about themselves and be operating in the world in a very robust and healthy way until somebody says something cruel. And I do think there’s a gender component here. The word bossy would hit a girl more painfully because in the world it’s more acceptable for boys to be bossy, so they can cope with that word better. It’s less acceptable for girls.

AN: Words absolutely matter. We’re finding—and not just us, but people all over who are doing research on bullying—that verbal bullying has more of an impact and a more long-lasting impact on people’s self-esteem, their relationships, than the physical kind. That really goes to show just how powerful words can be. But as Kari said, so much of it is context. There are some people who can take the word bossy and own it. I can see girls with sparkly shirts saying, “You wanna see bossy?!”

KW: I think Sheryl Sandberg’s larger point—she’s really searching for ways to help girls and women become more comfortable with being empowered, to have a more positive relation to the concept of being in charge and exercising power, and I admire that. My only reservation has to do with reminding people that women are not inherently more moral than men, so the question isn’t just having power, it’s how do you exercise power? That’s important for all of us.

How do you take your coffee?

Kari: One-and-a-half to two cups before 10 a.m., with lots of half-and-half.
I don’t drink coffee, but I love hot chocolate with extra whipped cream!