I’m a strong and assertive female. As a kid, I never worried about being the only female in my higher-level Calculus classes. I practiced my condescending look of superiority all through middle school and high school, so I could stop an insecure or immature boy cold in his tracks. Later in life, I married a man who respected an independent woman. He assures me that one of my most attractive features is that I don’t need him to take care of me at all. I feel pretty empowered.

In my work life, I’ve never been scared of a fight. On a daily basis, I deal with twenty men who want something done, someone to blame, or some time to loaf. They aren’t terrible people, but they all tend to be stubborn and sure of themselves. Though it’s taken a couple years, I’ve made a name for myself as someone who gets her job done, but doesn’t take any crap. I don’t think my co-workers would call me a bitch, at least not to my face. But they wouldn’t call me a push-over, either. I work hard at my career and I’ve excelled.

For someone so strong and self-assured, I’m still a little terrified of being perceived as a bitch. I didn’t realize it was an issue until my husband was in the hospital. We didn’t know what was wrong, so the experience was pretty tense and strenuous. Even friends who worked in the health care industry were telling me, “You have to be your own advocate.” As my husband lay in bed for days waiting for tests that never came, nurses I knew were instructing me to ask for a specialist. But I didn’t want to question the nurses and doctors we were working with. I was afraid of seeming pushy or ungrateful.

Feeling like such a helpless patient, I realized that fear of bitchiness went past the hospital. Anytime I find myself in the role of the customer, I become meek. If I receive poor service, I rarely comment on it. If I need something extra, I apologize profusely and thank copiously. As a consumer, I’m the type of subservient and timid female that I could never imagine being in my private or professional life. I can’t explain this phenomenon. People smarter than me would make conjectures about social protocol and the indoctrination of young women. It might have something to do with that. Or maybe it’s my years in retail and food service that make me empathize with those in service positions. Whatever the reason, I have no problem being strong, assertive, forceful, or even a downright bitch when my life or my career calls for it. But as a customer, I’m as soft-spoken as a ’50s housewife.

So I guess I’m wondering, is this just an odd personal quirk or a typical female reaction? Do we work hard to be assertive in our professional lives, only to strike a deferential and hesitant tone when we step outside of our position of authority? Or is this a whole lot of words to say that I’m afraid someone will spit in my food?