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1144 Being Assertive and Meek

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Complete Transcript
Welcome to English as a Second Language Podcast number 1,144 – Being Assertive and Meek.

This is English as a Second Language Podcast episode 1,144. I’m your host, Dr. Jeff McQuillan, coming to you from the Center for Educational Development in beautiful Los Angeles, California.

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In this episode, we’re going to listen to a dialogue between Victor and Maura about someone who is assertive, someone who gives his or her opinion with great confidence, and someone who is meek – someone who is not very strong or perhaps likes to keep quiet. Let’s get started.

[start of dialogue]

Victor: We need to take the bull by the horns. In the meeting today, we’re going to give it to them straight, no more hemming and hawing.

Maura: You’re right. We need to tell them what we really think and be done with it.

Victor: Definitely. We’ve been conciliatory long enough. Today, we need to be insistent without being too pushy.

Maura: Being unassuming and deferential has its place, but not if we seem meek. We need to be assertive without being too in-your-face.

Victor: You’re absolutely right. One of us has to speak up.

Maura: Yes, one of us has to be bold. They’ll have to take us seriously this time.

Victor: Okay, ready?

Maura: Sure, I have your back.

Victor: Huh? I thought you were going to do the talking.

Maura: Uh, I thought you were.

Victor: Maybe we should wait for the next meeting to take them on.

Maura: I totally agree. It’ll give us a little time to work up to it.

Victor: Exactly!

[end of dialogue]

Victor begins our dialogue by saying, “We need to take the bull by the horns.” “To take the bull (bull) by the horns (horns)” means to deal directly with something that is very difficult without hesitating, without delaying – to do it right now. A “bull” is an animal, a male animal whose opposite is the “cow,” the female animal of that particular kind of animal. A bull has “horns” – things that stick out of its head. Bulls are known, at least in the popular imagination, of being very difficult to control, of being dangerous. So, to take a bull by its horns would be a very dangerous thing to do. You could get hurt.

This expression, then, “to take the bull by the horns” means to try to take care of something that is very difficult or challenging. Victor says, “In the meeting today, we’re going to give it to them straight, no more hemming and hawing.” The expression “to give it to someone straight” means to tell someone the truth in a very simple and direct way. We might say in a “straightforward” way. “I’m going to give it to you straight.” I’m going to tell you the truth even though it might hurt you, even though it might be difficult for you to accept.

The expression “hemming (hemming) and hawing (hawing)” is a somewhat unusual one. “To hem and haw” means to speak indirectly. It’s the opposite, in a way, of giving it to someone straight. “To hem and haw” is to speak very indirectly or, I think more commonly, not to make a decision – to go back and forth, to keep talking about something without actually coming to a decision. Someone who doesn’t want to make a decision or wants more time to make a decision might hem and haw.

Well, Victor is saying that they’re not going to hem and haw. They’re going to “give it to them straight,” whoever they are. Maura says, “You’re right,” meaning you’re correct. “We need to tell them what we really think and be done with it.” The expression “to be done with it” means to finish something and leave nothing undone, to make sure that you’ve completely finished whatever it is that you’re doing.

Often we use this expression when the thing to be done is perhaps somewhat painful, or something you don’t really want to do. If you’re going to break up with your girlfriend or your boyfriend, some people say it’s better just to tell them directly and “be done with it.” Don’t wait or give hints over a period of weeks that maybe you’re not happy in your relationship and so forth. Some people would say, “Just do it and be done with it.”

Victor agrees with Maura. He says, “Definitely. We’ve been conciliatory long enough.” “To be conciliatory” (conciliatory) means to try to find a peaceful resolution to a problem, especially when one or both people who disagree about something are angry or upset. “To be conciliatory” means to try to end a conflict or a disagreement in such a way that the other person or the other group of people isn’t angry or upset. If you have a disagreement with your wife or your husband, you might try to be conciliatory later on. You might try to say nice things to them so that he or she is no longer angry. This isn’t always easy, of course. It depends what you said.

Victor says, “Today, we need to be insistent without being too pushy.” “To be insistent” (insistent) means to be demanding, to not accept no for an answer. Someone who is insistent continues to try to win the argument or get what he wants. Someone who is “pushy” (pushy) is someone who is insistent but in a very forceful way, someone who tries to make other people do what he wants. “Pushy” is always a negative way of describing someone. You can be insistent without being pushy. “To be pushy” means to go too far, to be too forceful.

Maura agrees. She says, “Being unassuming and deferential has its place, but not if we seem meek.” “To be on unassuming” (unassuming) means to be modest, not to want other people to pay attention to you, not to consider yourself the best person in the room, not to be arrogant. Someone who is unassuming is humble is modest. Maura says, “Being unassuming and deferential has its place.”

“To be deferential” (deferential) means to be very respectful of people who are more powerful, or perhaps who are older, but so much so that you let them make all the decisions. “To be deferential” means usually to be too respectful of people, to let other people do everything or make all of the important decisions. I should add that being deferential isn’t always a bad thing, although it’s often used in a negative sense nowadays, perhaps because we all want to get our own way. No one wants to be deferential anymore.

Maura says, however, that being deferential “has its place,” meaning sometimes it’s okay. “But,” she continues, “not if we seem meek” (meek). “To be meek” here means to do what other people want you to do usually, to be humble. “To be meek,” however, can mean simply to be quiet and gentle. It doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but Maura uses it here in a negative way, perhaps because we’re talking about something related to business, where people often think that being meek is the same as being “weak” (weak).

Maura says, “We need to be assertive without being too in-your-face.” “To be assertive” (assertive) means to be forceful and confident, but still in a respectful way. “To be assertive” is not to be pushy. “To be assertive” means to show confidence to get what you want, to be someone who is willing to say what he wants and insist upon it.

Maura thinks they should be assertive without being “too in-your-face.” “To be in-your-face” means to be confrontational, to be argumentative – to argue with someone, to directly challenge someone in order to win an argument or to get what you want. It’s similar to being pushy, but it refers specifically to someone who confronts another person – who argues with another person or says things to another person that would make him angry.

Victor agrees. He says, “You’re absolutely right. One of us has to speak up.” “To speak up” is a two-word phrasal verb meaning to give your opinion, especially when in the past you’ve been quiet. “To speak up” means to actually voice or tell someone what you’re thinking. Maura agrees. She says, “Yes, one of us has to be bold.” “To be bold” (bold) here means to be direct, to be forceful, to be brave – not to be shy, not to be meek. She says, “They’ll have to take us seriously this time.”

Victor says, “Okay, ready?” Maura says, “Sure, I have your back.” “To have someone’s back” (back) means to support someone who is taking action. You’re not the person taking the action, but you’re helping that person. You’re supporting that person. Maura thinks that Victor is going to be the one to speak up. Victor obviously thought Maura was going to be the one to speak up because he says, “Huh? I thought you were going to do the talking,” meaning you were the one who was going to actually speak. Maura says, “I thought you were.”

Victor says, “Maybe we should wait for the next meeting to take them on.” “To take someone on” means to start an argument or a disagreement with someone, to confront someone. Maura says, “I totally agree,” meaning “I completely agree.” “It’ll give us time to work up to it.” “To work up to” something is a phrasal verb meaning to slowly prepare for something so that you are ready for it.

So, after all this discussion about how they were going to give it to them straight, how they were going to be insistent, and so forth, it turns out that neither Maura nor Victor really wanted to be the one to speak up, to do the talking. This of course is a common problem. People are very brave until it comes to the point where they actually have to do something.

Now let’s listen to the dialogue, this time at a normal speed.

[start of dialogue]

Victor: We need to take the bull by the horns. In the meeting today, we’re going to give it to them straight, no more hemming and hawing.

Maura: You’re right. We need to tell them what we really think and be done with it.

Victor: Definitely. We’ve been conciliatory long enough. Today, we need to be insistent without being too pushy.

Maura: Being unassuming and deferential has its place, but not if we seem meek. We need to be assertive without being too in-your-face.

Victor: You’re absolutely right. One of us has to speak up.

Maura: Yes, one of us has to be bold. They’ll have to take us seriously this time.

Victor: Okay, ready?

Maura: Sure, I have your back.

Victor: Huh? I thought you were going to do the talking.

Maura: Uh, I thought you were.

Victor: Maybe we should wait for the next meeting to take them on.

Maura: I totally agree. It’ll give us a little time to work up to it.

Victor: Exactly!

[end of dialogue]

Our script was written by our unassuming scriptwriter, the wonderful Dr. Lucy Tse.

From Los Angeles, California, I’m Jeff McQuillan. Thank you for listening. Come back and listen to us again right here on ESL Podcast.

English as a Second Language Podcast was written and produced by Dr. Lucy Tse, hosted by Dr. Jeff McQuillan. Copyright 2015 by the Center for Educational Development.

Glossary
to take the bull by the horns – to deal directly with something that is very difficult or challenging, without hesitating or delaying

* It’s time to take the bull by the horns and start making repairs to this old house. We can’t spend any more time just worrying about it.

to give it to (someone) straight – to tell someone the truth very simply and directly, in a straightforward manner

* Please give it to me straight. How much longer do I have to live?

to hem and haw – to speak very indirectly, using a lot of words and taking a lot of time, but not really getting to the point, especially when one is very indecisive and/or does not know what decision to make

* The board of directors is hemming and hawing about whether they should fire the CEO.

to be done with it – to do and finish something, without leaving any part of it unfinished or unresolved

* Just rip off the bandage and be done with it. That’s better than pulling it off a little bit at a time.

conciliatory – trying to find a peaceful resolution to problems; trying to end conflicts and disagreements

* The mediator has a conciliatory approach, always trying to help clients reach a compromise.

insistent – demanding; insisting on something; not accepting “no” for an answer

* Why are the executives so insistent about opening a new office now? Wouldn’t it be better to wait another year or two?

pushy – very forceful, making other people do what one wants

* Why do people who sell cars have to be so pushy?

unassuming – modest; not demanding attention or admiration; not arrogant

* Will is so unassuming that most people don’t realize how brilliant he is.

deferential – extremely respectful of people who are older or more powerful, especially too much so, letting them lead and make decisions

* People in power must get tired of othersmee being so deferential to them all the time, not giving their true opinions.

meek – very humble and doing what others want one to do; not powerful or brave; submitting to other people’s authority

* Sheila is too meek to defend herself from criticism at company meetings.

assertive – showing confidence and forcefulness, but in a respectful way

* Once Lionel learned to be more assertive, he realized that he could get what he wanted more often.

in-your-face – confrontational, directly opposing another person

* His in-your-face attitude has offended a lot of his co-workers and few people are willing to work with him in a team.

to speak up – to voice one’s opinion; to begin to speak when one has been very quiet or observant

* If anyone objects to this plan, now is the time to speak up.

bold – brave, direct, and forceful, not hesitant or shy, and not afraid of taking risks

* In a bold move, he asked Karina to marry him after they had been dating for only a few weeks.

to have (one’s) back – to support and protect someone who is taking an action

* Soldiers are taught to have each other’s back on the battlefield.

to do the talking – to be the one who speaks, especially with leadership and authority

* He often lets his wife do the talking when they meet other couples at parties.

to take (someone) on – to confront someone; to start to argue or fight with someone

* All of the students are afraid of Monique and no one is willing to take her on when she starts bullying the younger students.

to work up to (something) – to slowly prepare for something, gradually getting stronger or better until one is ready for it

* You just started running last week. It will take a while to work up to a running a marathon.

Comprehension Questions
1. Which of these words is closest in meaning to meek?
a) Conciliatory
b) Pushy
c) Unassuming

2. What does Victor mean when he says, “We need to take the bull by the horns”?
a) They need to deal with the problem directly.
b) They need to learn more about cattle-farming.
c) They need to fire their co-workers.

Answers at bottom.

What Else Does It Mean?
to be done with it

The phrase “to be done with it,” in this podcast, means to do and finish something, without leaving any part of it unfinished or unresolved: “Just pay for a new water heater and be done with it. We don’t have any other options.” The phrase “to be done with (something)” means to complete or finish something: “Please send me a copy of the report as soon as you’re done with it.” The phrase “to be done for” means to be in trouble and on track to fail: “If the client doesn’t like our proposal, we’re done for.” Finally, the phrase “a done deal” describes an agreement that has already been signed and cannot be changed: “At this point, the merger is a done deal.”

bold

In this podcast, the word “bold” means brave, direct, and forceful, not hesitant or shy, and not afraid of taking risks: “It was very bold of you to ask your boss for a raise when you know sales have been slow.” When talking about colors, “bold” means bright: “They painted their dining room walls a very unusual, bold blue.” The formal phrase “to be so bold as to” means to do something that is not socially acceptable or that might be considered rude: “How could you be so bold as to ask Danielle for a date in front of her ex-husband?” Finally, the formal phrase “If I may be so bold” is used to ask someone a question, especially when that person has more authority than oneself: “If I may be so bold, why are we pursuing this strategy when all the forecasts show it will lose money?”

Culture Note
Employee Assistance Programs

Many large employers offer “employee assistance programs” (EAP) as part of their “benefits package” (all the things given to employees in addition to money, such as insurance, vacation days, and company-owned cars). EAPs are supposed to help employees “deal with” (handle; manage) personal problems that, if left untreated, might begin to affect their health and/or work performance.

EAPs first appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, mostly focusing on helping employees deal with “alcohol abuse” (not being able to stop or control one’s drinking of alcoholic beverages), but now they offer assistance in many areas. For example, EAP programs can offer assistance for “substance abuse” (overuse of alcohol and illegal drugs), stress, healthcare concerns, relationship “counseling” (professional advice about personal issues), “office conflicts” (arguments and poor relationships with one’s co-workers), financial concerns, “tax filing” (submitting tax documents to the federal government once a year), and more. EAP programs can usually put individuals in touch with financial advisors, “attorneys” (lawyers), medical specialists, travel agents, and more.

In a typical EAP program, employees can call one or more telephone numbers for a “confidential” (without having one’s personal information be shared with others) “consultation” (a period of time to ask questions and receive information). Based on that consultation, they might be directed to online “resources” (information and materials), or they might receive a “referral” (a recommendation and authorization to see someone) a professional or specialist.

Employers appreciate EAPs, because they believe that providing this service to employees helps to reduce medical costs and “absenteeism” (days when people do not come to work), and increase “productivity” (the amount and quality of work obtained from one person or machine).

Comprehension Answers
1 - c

2 - a