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Assertiveness is not taking your personal angst out on the first person to get in your way. Though sometimes that can be fun, too
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Ugh. Little Hitlers everywhere. It's always worse at this time of year: it's wall-to-wall interfering twits in January and February. It could be Seasonal Affective Disorder in practice - less light equals less tolerance - but I blame New Year resolutions myself. Half the people in the world say "I'm going to be more assertive this year", but they don't take the trouble to find out what assertiveness actually is.

Assertiveness is, on the whole, a useful quality. People go on courses to learn it. Assertiveness is pointing out calmly to the boss that you've been here 11 hours and now you're going home to have a bath. Or getting your partner to accept that, as you're the one reading the map, you're probably right about turning off. It is telling the plumber that he mentioned nothing about call-out fees in his estimate. And telling your junkie schoolfriend that you won't lend her pounds 100, but will help her out with her rehab bill.

Assertiveness is not, however, taking your personal angst out on the first person to get in your way. Sometimes that can be fun, too. The other day, on the narrow bit of pavement at the top of King's Road some heavily- coiffed fur coats were holding up a couple of hundred people as they dawdled three-abreast with their shopping bags sticking out. It gave me great pleasure to scrape my DMs down the back of the middle one's shoes until they shifted. But I know that's not assertiveness, just glorious spite.

This has been a week in which I have encountered a lot of people who think being assertive means throwing a whoosh-dada whenever the world isn't exactly as they want. Instead of sighing and letting it go, they start drawing up plans to invade Poland. Like, for instance, the man in Safeway.

Everyone knows supermarkets are full of dotty old ladies. It's one of their functions to provide a short-term daycare service and entertainment centre. My local Safeway is a friendly shop staffed mainly by Filipinas who recognise customers and say "Hello, how are you?" just like in the late, lamented corner shops of old. I was standing in the ten items or less, cash-only queue and there was an old girl in a green fake astrakhan overcoat and viscose gauze turban at the front. She must have had 20 items, mostly cat food and baked beans. The checkout girl indulgently rang them up, at which point old lady produced a cheque book.

Between me and her stood a man. He huffed and puffed through the ringing- up, then lost his rag at the sight of the cheque. He tapped old lady on the shoulder. "Can't you read?" he said. "Excuse me?" quavered old lady "Can't you read?" he pointed at the sign above the till, "it says ten items or less, cash only." Old lady got all dithery and flustered, "I'm sorry. I didn't see it." "Well, you should have looked," he snarled. "Eeet oke," said the checkout girl, "won'tek long." "Yes it will. We've all got to stand here while she writes out a cheque." "I run tru machine. No'tek long." "Huh," he turned vaguely in my direction, "and that's another thing. Things would move a lot faster if they'd employ people who spoke English properly. It's a bloody disgrace."

Net result: one tearful old lady, one insulted till worker, ill will all round and a greater queue delay. Later, I boarded a bus. The heat was cranked up to about 90 degrees and the passengers were glowing. I slid the window above my seat open. The woman in front turned and glared. "I'll thank you to close that," she said. Very Forties. "It's awfully hot in here," I replied mildly. "It's not supposed to be open," she barked. "It's the middle of winter. You can't have the windows open in the winter." The woman sitting behind joined in. "I'd rather it stayed open. It's terribly hot in here." "Look," cried woman-in-front, "I told you to close it. Just close it." I couldn't be bothered to move. She called the conductress. "This one," she jabbed her finger at me, "refuses to close that window. I told her. But she won't." The conductress glanced at the window. "It is quite hot in here," she said. "Look! She can't have it open! It's the rules! I told her to shut it and she should shut it! It's the rules!" And so on. Woman-behind and I disembarked a couple of stops later. Woman- in-front stood up and slammed the window to with an air of triumphalism. A resounding victory.

So I went off to do my chore, which was to drop into WH Smith for some magazines. I tucked my usual bunch of riveting reading - Soldier (Are you man enough for the SAS TA?), Dolls House World (free inside - authentic Sainsbury's labels!), Private Eye, Men's Health, Family History Monthly (spotlight on Pembrokeshire) and Fortean Times - under my arm and popped out my notebook to scribble down the contents of a few others. I was checking out the feature on the Ice Warriors of Valhalla in White Dwarf when a girl in a nylon apron leaned over her counter. "'Scuse me," she called, "I'm afraid you're not allowed to do that, actually." "Why not?" "You're just not. If you want to read the magazines, you have to buy them." "Look, I've got 15 quid's worth of magazines here. Am I really not allowed to look at the others?" "No." she said. "You can't read them if you haven't bought them."

The sensible answer would have been to drop the stuff I was going to buy on the floor and stalk from the shop. So what I did was meekly close the magazine, replace it on the rack and hand over my money while she got on with annexing the Sudetanland. I swear, this year, I'm going to be more assertive

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