Am I a Karen The Difference Between Being Difficult And Being Assertive

From the woman who claimed to be a “sovereign” when asked to wear a mask during the pandemic in 2020, to the former property agent who was accused of filming MRT commuters, and directing racist and elitist remarks towards them in 2021, Singapore has had its fair share of “Karens” in recent years. 

In the US, there were several high-profile cases of “Karens” calling the authorities on innocent people, belittling frontline workers, and throwing tantrums in public when they didn’t get their way.

While it’s perfectly acceptable to assert your rights and stand up for yourself, especially if you feel you’ve been unfairly or poorly treated, there’s a way to go about it without behaving like a “Karen” – that is, entitled, defiant, rude, obnoxious and insufferable.

“Karen”: What’s in a name?

Its origins are blurry, but the Karen stereotype became popular in 2018, when people in the US began filming confrontations and incidents in which middle-aged, middle-class (and often Caucasian) women were perceived as acting entitled and racist in public. As these videos (and memes) made their rounds on social media, netizens assigned these women the nickname “Karen”.

These days, “Karen” is associated with a woman who sees herself as privileged and entitled. She acts like she can get whatever she wants, is disrespectful to the people around her – expecting them to cave in to her demands and give her special treatment – and doesn’t care how she comes across to others when she’s having a meltdown.

Image: 123rf

It also describes a certain type of personality and behaviour: bigoted, aggressive, angry, bossy, self-righteous, interfering, defiant, self-absorbed and prudish.

A “Karen” is a woman who demands to speak to the manager because the waiter messed up her order, and who reports her neighbours to the police when they play their music too loudly or for other minor inconveniences. She’s someone who weaponises her relative privilege against minority groups, service staff and others whom she deems socially and economically beneath her.

 At the height of the pandemic, “Coronavirus Karen” was used to describe a woman who refused to wear her mask in public when asked to.

 Men can be “Karens” too, with social media users giving them the nicknames “Ken”, “Kevin” and “Chad” instead. Like his female equivalent, he is middle-aged, complains about everything, is self-entitled and obnoxious, and has no qualms threatening others or being aggressive in public.

Are certain types of people more prone to “Karen” behaviour? Apparently so, according to psychiatrist Dr Lim Boon Leng from Dr BL Lim Centre for Psychological Wellness.

“Research has shown that certain personality traits might predispose some individuals to be more ‘Karen-like’. These may include high levels of feelings of entitlement, a low level of agreeableness, and low emotional intelligence,” he says. 

But Dr Lim warns that you shouldn’t be so quick to “cancel” someone for seemingly unreasonable behaviour. It’s possible that they were just having a bad day, and unfortunately felt the need to take their anger or frustration out on others. And, having certain qualities or being of a certain character doesn’t automatically make someone a “Karen”.

“It’s important to remember that every individual and every situation is unique, and one’s actions may not solely be defined by their personality traits. As such, we should be careful about labelling a person a ‘Karen’ just based on one incident,” explains Dr Lim.

Being a “Karen” may indicate your dissatisfaction with life

Not surprisingly, unleashing your inner “Karen” in public makes you look bad, say etiquette experts.

Eunice Tan, founder of Image Flair Academy of Modern Etiquette, says that when you yell or complain loudly and make a scene in public, you come across as rude, aggressive and ill-mannered, not to mention, lacking compassion or empathy for others.

You may also be seen as antagonistic, adds Teo Ser Lee, founder and director of Protocol Academy. She says: “Belittling, berating and harassing service industry workers, making unreasonable demands, screaming to get others’ attention, refusing to wear a mask or follow a restaurant’s rules, and essentially blowing up over minor issues – such behaviour is nothing short of hostile.”

Image: 123rf

It’s easy to assume that the more a “Karen” complains and finds fault with others, the more miserable she may feel, but Dr Lim says that “Karen-like” behaviour is, more often than not, a consequence rather than the cause of deep-rooted negativity or dissatisfaction with life.

“What this means is that ‘Karens’ – or individuals who constantly complain – tend to be persistent negative thinkers, perhaps due to underlying unresolved issues related to their job or marital relationship, for example,” he says.

“Nevertheless, their negative ‘Karen’ behaviour may further foster a pessimistic outlook, and contribute to greater feelings of dissatisfaction and happiness, thus creating a vicious cycle.”  

How to stand your ground (and not be a jerk about it)

No one wants to be called a “Karen”, but does every woman who asserts herself, complains, or confronts others deserve the moniker?

The answer lies in how you conduct yourself when you’re frustrated and tempted to lash out at others to make yourself heard.

Ser Lee says to stick to the facts rather than succumb to your emotions. There’s nothing wrong with asking to see the manager if the issue cannot be resolved with the waitstaff, but even when speaking to the manager, it’s important to be factual, and to state the problem and the cause, without pointing fingers at the waitstaff.

And don’t lose your cool, she adds.

Image: 123rf

“Be professional and firm, but avoid getting aggressive or defensive. There’s no need to shout. Use your normal tone of voice, as if relating the incident to a friend or third party. Mind your body language too – maintain an upright posture, gesture appropriately when talking, and maintain eye contact to show sincerity and respect for the other person.”

 Dr Lim suggests using “I” statements to convey your feelings and needs, maintaining a calm and confident tone, listening to what the other person has to say, and trying to find common ground so that you can come up with a solution that works for everyone.

If you’re complaining to a store or restaurant manager about poor service by their staff, Ser Lee says to let the manager know that you’re giving them “feedback” to help them improve their service or products, and not to be petty or to demean their employees. 

Remind yourself that the other person may be having their own challenges too. For instance, the restaurant may be busy and the waiter serving you is overwhelmed, or another motorist took your parking spot because she’s a new driver and didn’t realise that you were waiting for it.

Eunice says that if you need to confront the other person or speak to their manager, do it in private rather than cause a scene in public. Maintain a respectful tone, and stay clear of aggressive and accusing language.

While it’s understandable that you want to unleash your fury on others, Dr Lim says to check yourself before giving in to your emotional impulses. He shares: “I recommend practising self-awareness and self-regulation, and to think about the person or people you’re dealing with. Start by taking a few gentle breaths to calm yourself down and help you think more rationally. Then, try to make sense of the situation from the other person’s perspective, and consider whether the problem might have been unintentional or beyond their control.”

He points out that, in these situations, trying to empathise with the other person tends not to work, as you may believe that your anger and behaviour are justified. Instead, tell yourself that continuing to be angry will only make the situation worse.

Even if you feel strongly that the other person is being unreasonable, there’s no need to treat them disrespectfully or throw a tantrum in public. Dr Lim explains that there are more civilised ways to handle a seemingly unfair or offensive situation.   

“Adopting a solution-focused mindset, and communicating your concerns calmly and respectfully often leads to a more positive outcome for everyone involved.

“Remember that no one is perfect and that everyone makes mistakes. Of course, your emotions are valid, but you must also acknowledge that other people deserve to be treated with respect too.”

Image: 123rf

Quiz: Are you being a Karen?

Choose “a”, “b” or “c” and see what the results say. 

Your soup arrives at the table warm, not steaming hot. What do you do?

A Politely point it out to the waiter, and ask for the soup to be heated a bit longer.

B Take photos of the soup and tell the manager you’re going to post them on social media along with a bad review.

C Shrug and finish the soup, even though it’s unpalatable – you don’t want to bother the waitstaff.

Someone cut into your lane without indicating first. How do you react?

A Slow down a little to give them space, but honk to let them know that they made a dangerous move.

B Honk furiously and follow them so that you can confront them when they eventually stop.

C You don’t do anything. After all, the road belongs to everyone.

You were served Eggs Benedict and the egg rolled off your bread. Now you can’t take a proper picture for the ’Gram. You…

A Carefully reposition the egg.

B Send the dish back and ask the waiter for a new one.

C Stare at your plate and cry.

You’re walking in a park and notice that the dog owner in front of you didn’t clean up after his pet. How do you confront him?

A Run up to him and let him know that he forgot to pick up his dog’s poo.

B Report him to the police and then shame him loudly in front of other park-goers.

C You don’t confront him at all. Instead, you pick up the poo and dispose of it yourself.

 A family is barbecuing at the beach and the smoke from their barbecue pit is drifting towards your spot. You…

A Pick up your picnic blanket and move to another area, away from the smoke.

B Record what they’re doing for social media before throwing water on their barbecue pit.

C Sit there and continue to inhale the smoke, even though it’s making you cough.


Mostly “a”s: 

You’re not a “Karen”. You know how to speak your mind, confront others and stand up for yourself without causing any drama or being disrespectful.

Mostly “b”s: 

You have the characteristics of a “Karen”. You should look inward and find out where your anger, aggression and sense of self-entitlement are coming from, so that you can work on your issues.

Mostly “c”s: 

You’re not a “Karen” but you could definitely be more assertive when it comes to your rights and interests. If you don’t stand up for yourself, other people may walk all over you.

Text: Sasha Gonzales/Her World