Tobacco Education Center

How to Assert Your Rights

Frances E. Cheek, Ph.D.
Director, Behavior Modification Program
New Jersey Neuropsychiatric Institute

The scene is a fashionable restaurant at the dinner hour. One couple has just been seated. At the table beside them are an elderly, well-dressed man and his wife who have just finished dinner. The man is puffing contentedly on a cigar.

After several moments, the woman in the newly arrived couple says with great charm to the smoker:

"Sir, we have a problem."
"What do you mean?" is the response.
"In order for you to enjoy your dinner, you must smoke your cigar, but in order for us to enjoy our dinner we must be free of cigar smoke."
The elderly man laughs and puts out his cigar.

It all seems so simple. But for many of us nonsmokers who are becoming increasingly alarmed by new information regarding the effects of smoke on the nonsmoker--and are attempting to stand up for our rights in public places and personal spaces -- protecting ourselves is not so easy.

In our programs at the institute, we find that two kinds of errors are typically made. Some of us -- the under-assertive -- come on too tentatively. We don't really feel we have a right to interfere with the pleasures and activities of others, our manner is diffident, we are easily turned aside. Others -- the over-assertive -- come on too strongly. We attempt to get our way too vigorously, our manner is often seen as rude or abrupt. People resent our requests, which they see as demands, become annoyed and refuse to cooperate.

The Under-Assertive

Let's look at an under-assertive or timid person trying to deal with a situation where someone is blowing smoke in his or her face at a restaurant.

First, let's look at the non-verbal communication, an important aspect of assertive behavior. Probably the under-assertiveness will be revealed in a constrained posture, nervous mannerisms such as excessive gesturing with the hands, failure of eye contact, a low voice, stammering or stuttering, a generally inhibited and apologetic approach with a hesitant request: "Excuse me, but would you mind terribly...?"

How does the other person react? Often under-assertive behavior elicits over-assertive behavior from the other person in the situation. The other person may well hold himself or herself erect, make direct eye contact, speak loudly, refuse the request.

Then how does our timid person feel? Anxious, bad about himself both because he asked and because he was refused. Perhaps angry later, both at himself and at the other person.

The Over-Assertive

What happens when an over-assertive person, let's call him Mr. Lord, is offended by second-hand smoke? His back stiffens, his eyes harden and fix on the unfortunate smoker, his voice is loud and demanding. He attacks directly. "Look here--that smoke is a terrible nuisance. You should have more consideration for others. Put it out immediately."

How does the other person act? If he or she is under-assertive, the person apologizes and meekly puts out the cigarette. But if he or she is another over-assertive person, there may be a hostile non-verbal display and an angry interchange which may even lead to actual physical violence.

How does Mr. Lord feel in the situation? Righteous, superior, depreciatory. (But his wife is embarrassed and won't speak to him all evening.) How does the other person feel about Mr. Lord? Angry and vengeful.

Interestingly, under-assertive people are more likely to be aware of the nature of their behavior and its consequences than the over-assertive. Why? For one thing, they get more feed-back. It's so easy to risk telling timid people what is wrong with them. They fold immediately. In the same situation, the over-assertive person will fight back.

Of course, what we really should be talking about is under- or over-assertive behavior, not persons, because most of us are a combination. In one situation or with one person, we are under-assertive, in another situation, or with another person, over-assertive.

Correctly Assertive Behavior

Now let's look at some guidelines for correct assertiveness in smoking situations.

CORRECT TIMING. If this were a recurring situation with a particular person, maybe a friend or spouse, you could pick the moment carefully. But in the restaurant situation, the situation is immediate and usually involves a stranger. Assertive behavior often involves taking a risk, but not all risks are worth taking. The other person may be an obviously anxious, tense chain-smoker who might easily become irritable and upset, or a large, aggressive person who might get angry. The correctly assertive person might decide for his or her own comfort that the cigarette smoke is the lesser evil. If the smoker is breaking a law or regulation, however, it may be important to point that out.

KEEP CALM. In our assertiveness training sessions at the institute, we teach people how to relax very fast, by imagining "calm scenes," muscle tightening followed by relaxing, and deep breathing. Anyone can develop his or her own techniques. Also, we teach how to "desensitize," how to defuse in advance trigger situations that would ordinarily lead to tensions, anxiety, and loss of control. Acting out these situations and even playing the role of the smoker for practice can be enormously helpful.

CONSIDER THE OTHER PERSON'S SIDE OF THE MATTER. This means, first of all, trying to understand why the other person is doing what he or she is doing. Then, expressing the fact that you understand shows that this is a two-way street. You are not only concerned about your own point of view. And your statement of understanding opens up the communication process. In the restaurant situation, for example, you might begin by saying in a warm manner, "I am sure you are enjoying that after-dinner cigarette." Then you state your dilemma.

COMMUNICATE YOUR OWN SITUATION. Express your feelings and point of view: "Unfortunately, however, the cigarette smoke is really interfering with the pleasure of my husband and myself in eating this delicious dinner." Why is this important? Because the other person simply may not realize the impact of his or her behavior on you. Also, expressing your feelings or dissatisfaction or annoyance helps to dissipate them.

CLARIFY A SOLUTION. Move the situation toward a positive resolution. Bring the other person into a joint endeavor to reach the solution. "We would very much appreciate it if you didn't smoke at the table. Perhaps you might enjoy that after-dinner cigarette later, somewhere else."

LOOK AT THE CONSEQUENCES. Consider the negative consequences if the situation remains unresolved--and state them. Then phrase a positive solution. This can move both parties in the direction of a solution as a result of assessment of the consequences. "We would be very grateful for your thoughtfulness. Otherwise, I'm afraid my husband and I will simply not be able to enjoy this excellent food."

Of greatest importance is the calmness and positive nature of the entire approach. You are not rejecting the other person as a whole--butmerely this particular bit of behavior. When the smoker puts out the cigarette, our correctly assertive nonsmoker thanks him or her warmly.

Rewards of Assertiveness

It should be noted that correct assertiveness is not necessarily going to succeed in all situations. Some individuals just will not cooperate no matter how appropriate your approach. What it will do is raise your batting average: you will do better, more people will cooperate with you.

However, in one way you will always be successful. You will feel better about your own performance. You won't have to feel guilty and negative towards yourself for either wishy-washy under-assertiveness or rude over-assertiveness. You have attempted to behave in a positive and reasonable way both for yourself and the other person and you can congratulate yourself in this regard.

Notice that while assertive training involves outer behavior it also involves inner feelings such as your feelings about yourself. And it is particularly important for the under-assertive person to begin by recognizing his or her own rights in the situation, just as the over-assertive person must be aware of the rights of others. You have a right not to have your health and pleasure ruined by selfishness and inconsideration of another, and you must respect the rights and needs of others.

Be aware of your rights and those of others. Then follow these guidelines to get that smoke out of your eyes--and lungs.