, ,

This post is inspired by a conversation I had with a male friend regarding the subtle difference between “I’d like to kiss you” versus “Can I kiss you”.

“It’s too bad,” I said, “but, ‘Can I kiss you?’ just isn’t sexy. It implies a lack of confidence. And I’m attracted to confidence! What can I say?”

“Yeah, but you say you hate arrogance, right?”

“I can’t stand it! It’s such a turn off.”

He was getting noticeably frustrated. “But they are basically the same thing!” he fumed, “Both are ‘believing in yourself’! Just sometimes people perceive you as arrogant.  It’s really about knowing your audience more than anything.”

I disagreed, but I couldn’t put a coherent argument together at the time. Still, his comment got me thinking, “What is the difference between confidence and arrogance?” It’s true, both words embody a strong belief in oneself, but arrogance makes others feel bad, while confidence is inspiring.

(This post is a team effort with my friend Jeff. We’ve discussed everything together and agreed on everything presented here. While most of the post comes primarily from my voice, there’s also a section where Jeff is the main speaker. This will be denoted with bold. )

So What’s the Diff?

Here’s what the Merriam-Webster online dictionary has to say:

confident def

arrogant def

So confidence is self-assurance, but arrogance exaggerates that self-assurance to the point of superiority. We perceive someone as arrogant when they imply that they are superior to us through their actions, words, or demeanor. For example…

I think we can all agree that some people are plain ol' arrogant

I think we can all agree that some people are plain ol’ arrogant

Kanye West was notoriously arrogant when he cut off Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs. By interrupting Swift’s acceptance speech, he showed the world that he thought his opinion was superior to the awards committee, Swift’s feelings, and the standard etiquette protocols.

But most cases are not as obvious as Kanye West. Often, when we try to display confidence, our behavior may still be interpreted or perceived as arrogance. How frustrating! No one wants to be (perceived as) an arrogant asshole.

Is this guy confident or arrogant?...Hard to tell.

Is this guy confident or arrogant?…Hard to tell.

Maybe sometimes we truly are powerless to a few haters people’s perception of us. However, in the vast majority of cases, there is ONE simple thing we can do to ensure that we don’t come off as arrogant:

Show genuine respect and appreciation for others.

That’s it. It’s so simple… Yet so elusive! Confident people show respect to others. Arrogant people don’t. Let me explain this conclusion:

When someone is confident, they believe in themself, yes. However, they also believe that others may have something valuable to contribute. They know that they themselves are highly competent or intelligent, but they don’t think that they are better or more important than others. In fact, they look for opportunities to learn from and invite others to participate in the situation. They genuinely appreciate others.

Arrogant people also believe in themselves. They believe in themselves so much that they forget to listen to other people. They are dismissive towards others’ suggestions. They cut people off, or somehow prevent others from participating in the discussion or interaction. They don’t show respect for others because they are blinded by a belief that their way is the best way.

The Aggressive/Weak Paradox

The balancing act between confidence and arrogance is not inherently a feminist issue. It’s an issue that all people (of any gender or sexual orientation) will probably tackle at some point in their lives. The confidence/arrogance distinction plays a big role in one especially frustrating situation known as the “aggressive/weak paradox”.  I’m sure there’s an academic definition for the term ‘paradox’ out there, but for now, let’s just say a ‘paradox’ is a situation where you’re screwed no matter what you do (aka a catch 22 or a lose-lose situation).



The aggressive/weak paradox is a specific type of catch 22 where you ‘lose’ if you speak-up/act decisively and you also ‘lose’ if you remain silent /act indecisively.

You know, situations where you think, “well, I want to get my point across in this argument, but I don’t want to be an asshole about it” or “I want credit for all this work I did, but I don’t want to be a showoff”—these are little aggressive/weak paradoxes. If anything can be gender free, these situations are. These situations are frustrating, but they usually aren’t a HUGE deal. We find a way to get through them.

However, when the aggressive/weak paradox shows up in gendered situations, people get extremely riled up.

Female Leadership

The textbook example of the aggressive/weak paradox is the Female Leadership paradox. Female leaders who demonstrate decisiveness will often be called “controlling”, “masculine (in a bad way)”, “mean” and “aggressive”. However, if they show any signs of indecisiveness whatsoever they are called “soft”, “easily swayed” “obviously not cut out for the job” “feminine (in a bad way)” and “weak”.  In both cases, the ‘team’ Ms. Leader is supposed to be leading gets angry with Ms. Leader and doesn’t want to cooperate.

So frustrating, it makes your face go like this.

So frustrating, it makes your face go like this.

Male Romantic Pursuit

What seems to be a new issue is an aggressive/weak paradox gendered to the detriment of heterosexual men. With rising understanding and resistance towards rape culture, many men are now finding romantic pursuit to be a lose-lose situation.

In the Male Romantic Pursuit paradox, men who take romantic initiative might be labeled “creeper”, “rape-y”, or “aggressive”. However, if they are not able to clearly express their desire they risk being labeled “uninterested”, “passive”, “boring” or “weak”. If they simply don’t do anything, they lose an opportunity for a romantic/sexual relationship.

Escaping the Aggressive-Weak Paradox

The goal of this post is not to immediately change the paradox, but to help people escape it here and now, in their world, in whatever context. Recognizing the difference between confidence and arrogance (showing genuine respect for others) can help us escape even the gendered aggressive/weak paradoxes. Maybe it won’t work in every single situation, but we’ve got to at least give it a try!

Confidence while respecting others is simple in theory, but tough in practice. Why? Because confidently asserting yourself while respecting others requires you to be ok with not-always-getting-your-way. This may ultimately be a good thing. I mean, hey, maybe your way isn’t the best way. How can you know for sure until you have considered what other people have to say? If you think your way is unquestionably the best, without listening to other’s ideas, you are implying that you are superior.

It’s tough. For many people, including myself, being ‘right’ is important to the self-image/ego.  Entertaining the possibility that you might not have the best idea might make you feel …*gasp*… vulnerable.

Vlunerability?! What? Where did that come from?

Vulnerability?! What? Where did that come from?

It’s counter-intuitive, but true. Seeking others views requires a teeny bit of vulnerability, because you pre-emptively acknowledge that you might be wrong. Willingly displaying vulnerability while maintaining a solid sense of one’s viewpoint and innate self-worth? Now, that’s confidence! And it requires far more courage and self-assurance than blindly (arrogantly) assuming superiority.

Likewise, asking others for their opinions (or consent) is NOT weakness. However, if in the process of asking for other views, you manage to imply that your ideas are not valid or good, you automatically show lack of confidence. In a paradoxical situation this may be perceived as weakness.

You don’t have to agree with what others have to say, let alone be happy about it. But you need to truly consider their thoughts and opinions to be able to figure out what is best for the situation.  If you do this, you will not behave arrogantly. At the same time, you need to maintain the conviction that your ideas are valid. This way you will not perceived as weak. This is true for both professional situations (such as leadership) and intimate personal interactions (such romantic pursuit).

Escaping the Female Leadership Paradox

Personally, I had a lot of trouble with the Female Leadership aggressive/weak paradox during my time as the president of a club at my university. Many of my officers felt that I was too controlling and aggressive. I felt like I was just trying to get stuff done! Luckily, I had the opportunity to start clean (with a whole new set of officers) in a new school year. That summer I read a butt load of self-help books on leadership, and I realized that to be an effective leader, I needed to show more respect and appreciation for others. Furthermore, it had to be genuine appreciation or else I’d come off as patronizing.

The following year I was far more cognizant of the other officers. I sought out their advice and opinions, and seriously considered their suggestions. Sometimes I didn’t get my way, but that was because the group collectively decided that there was a different, better way. That doesn’t mean I was an incompetent leader. It means that two (or more) heads are better than one.  Voila! I escaped the female leadership paradox. The club got stuff done, and so far as I know, I stopped being perceived as a bulldozer.

Not me

Not me

Escaping the Male-Romantic Pursuit Paradox

(This is Jeff talking now). Simply walking up to a cute girl at a party and saying something as innocuous as, “Hey, hey, so we’re both at this party” (ok, not that exactly, but you know what I mean) has become a loaded social interaction. All I have to do is introduce myself, and social implications create a situation where all of the sudden, I’ve become a potential threat! Because this storyline is already in play, it is especially important that I make no assumptions about the interaction. I’ll flirt, but in doing so, I’ll seek out her desire–or lack thereof–then resolutely respect her views.. Maybe she is interested in romance or sex, but maybe she just wants a good conversation. If I keep the “goal” of sexy-times in my head, with no room for negotiation, I will be interpreted as a ‘creeper’ whether or not I actually cross her boundaries! However, if I simply confidently offer my company– sexual or otherwise, I leave space for her to contribute in whatever way she wants. 

Note: "Can I Kiss You" *shouldn't* imply weakness...but unfortunately for many, it still does.

Note: Perhaps “Can I Kiss You” *shouldn’t* imply weakness…but unfortunately for many, it still does.

This doesn’t mean men can’t initiate. It just means you must do so without adding to those pre-existing assumptions of “it’s my job to convince/pressure her into sexy times”. If you don’t make assumptions about her, it’s unlikely that she’ll make assumptions about you. It’s unlikely that she will label you ‘creeper,’ because she had a say in the interaction, and you respected her say. Creepers don’t respect others. They just keep pushing the boundaries. When you actively seek her perspective or consent, she will feel appreciated, respected and safe. If she is romantically/ sexually interested she may be inclined to trust you more. If she isn’t interested, it’s likely she still enjoyed your company and felt comfortable around you.

We are in Transition

These gendered paradoxes can be seen as a result of society slowly changing. Transition on a societal scale takes time, as it’s comprised of millions of tiny, personal transitions. As we gather more and more tiny transitions, I bet these gendered aggressive/weak paradoxes will start to go away.

The Female Leadership paradox has already begun to fade. Today, as female leadership becomes more commonplace and people are becoming more comfortable with female leaders, the aggressive/weak paradox is becoming less of an issue. That said, there’s still a long way to go. Most people still gets far angrier with female leaders that don’t show appreciation for their team than with male leaders behaving similarly. A big factor in chipping away at the Female Leadership paradox has been the extraordinarily courageous female leaders who have mastered that incredible balancing act of respectful confidence.

All leaders, regardless of gender should show genuine respect to their team. It’s just the best management practice. However, female leaders have been especially compelled to do this to escape the aggressive/weak paradox.

respect handshake

The Male Romantic Pursuit paradox is a far more recent phenomenon. As society grapples with the idea of rape culture, a new version of the traditional adage “we must protect the women-folk from all the horny men!” has surfaced. However, enforcement of this idea has shifted from shaming women for allowing any sex to shaming men for pursuing unwanted sex (a fine, fine plan, in my opinion!). Unfortunately, a large part of society still applauds male sexuality as conquest. Together these conflicting views create perfect conditions for a paradox.

For many, asking for explicit consent (“Can I kiss you”) is still perceived as weak, or unsexy. Yet many people  denounce “just going for it” as rape culture. Luckily, there is something in the middle: expressing desire without pressure (“I’d like to kiss you”); confidence without arrogance.

As we progress, I bet that ‘sexual conquest’ will become increasingly less accepted, and women will initiate more romantic endeavors. These phenomena will help alleviate the Male Romantic Pursuit paradox. However at the forefront, we need extraordinarily courageous men who can pursue romance with both confidence in themselves and respect for their partners.

So back to this guy:


Is he confident? Or arrogant? I honestly can’t tell.  I guess it really depends on how he treats the people around him.