when to speak, when to be silent, when to take up air in the room
sometimes it's good to talk. sometimes you add more joy to the world when you learn how to use your voice strategically and not talk. I'm still learning that, and many of us are.
I’m no expert when it comes to shutting up. But I was once.
Growing up and spending so much time alone in my room, moving around and not having friends, not having parents to have conversations with about my day after school, I naturally spent a lot of time being quiet. I can’t completely remember what I was like as a student as a kid, I only have inklings of memories, but from what I can recall, I was definitely that obnoxious teacher’s pet who was always raising her hand to ask too many questions and talk about what I liked most about the book we’d just read.
About a month ago when describing a fight I’d had with someone I love that rendered me so speechless I couldn’t have a conversation and could only type up an email, my therapist was confused about why I couldn’t talk, and why I instead chose to write out my response and send it in an email instead of having a talk. I don’t know if I’d ever thought about it like this before, but in that moment we both figured out that—even after years of speech and debate club in high school, public speaking endeavors in the real world, mediating arguments between roommates as a resident assistant in college, and being a generally articulate speaker—I actually have a really hard time speaking up and saying things out loud, because I never really had enough practice growing up. I didn’t talk to very many people until high school. So while expressing myself in writing might come naturally, conversations actually stress me out a lot because I didn’t get to have them and feel confident about interacting with someone else most of the time.
Now, in conversations with people, I interrupt a lot, I sometimes don’t know when to stop speaking. It’s my most frustrating quality—annoying to me and sometimes hurtful to others. I’m still trying to unlearn it. I didn’t realize why I was like this until a few years ago when a mentor asked me why I talk so much, why I always have so much to say. “I guess that kind of happens after being mostly silent for the first 18 years of your life,” I said. I’ll never forget the moment I realized that I’ve only really been talking to and interacting with people for a very short time in my life. How could I hold myself to the same standards as people who grew up in households where they could talk and learn how to talk with people?
By the time I was 16, I was attending an open mic for poetry every week in LA. I signed up for it nearly every time performing different poems on stage that I now think of as pretty silly for the most part, but mostly because I wish I hadn’t taken up so much space to talk and had listened more. Almost no one was unkind to me about it, but I do wish someone had taken me aside to ask why I felt the need to be center stage so often instead of taking a break. The answer, of course, would have been that I wasn’t getting the attention or chance to speak that I needed in others areas of my life.
By the time I was 18 and went to college, I was a mouth full of alarms. I wanted to speak about everything. For the last seven years or so, I’ve been a baby bird who’s just learning to fly. Only my wings are my mouth. I’m still learning how to use it. In some way, this is true for everyone. We’re all learning how to communicate with each other our whole lives, we’re all learning each other’s languages, both literal and figurative.
There are moments of injustice when we shouldn’t be silent. One of my favorite quotes is from Audre Lorde’s The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action: “I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you.” The rest of the essay talks about how we use our silence or our voices in our communities to build each other up. It’s a great piece to read when you’re questioning how silence has served the people you claim to care about or how it has harmed them.
While I’m on my personal journey to heal my trauma and learn when to speak—when to ask questions, when to let other people talk, and when to trust myself—I’m also trying to think about context, and all the situations and conversations that I don’t need to speak in, particularly because I’m a white person. White people are bad at shutting up. We’re bad at not centering ourselves, not seeing things from our perspective, not thinking we’re the experts on things, and not talking for or over non-white people. And we’re especially bad at not making excuses for why it’s actually totally fine for us to talk the most loudly.
I have a lot to think about in regards to how often I talk and how often I listen, and the excuses I make for myself that I wouldn’t accept from others. But I also think we all do, as white people. Although I’ve spent years navigating when it’s appropriate for me to be a part of a conversation or lead certain conversations and when it’s not, the last few weeks of riots, protests, and conversations about anti-Blackness, racism, and police violence have been a helpful reminder that most of the time it’s good enough to just amplify other people’s voices.
I’ve seen a lot of people who don’t know how to do this, which is understandable, but still frustrating for all of the people who have to deal with white people’s voices blaring in rooms not meant for us where we’re taking up all the air. I’ve seen some friends getting all kinds of weird white guilt-filled messages from white people crying about the racist things they’ve said and done, begging my friends to forgive them, being turned away because they really don’t want to have that conversation and still going on anyway. I’ve seen a lot of people not knowing when to not speak.
Again, I’m not an expert on being quiet in any way, and I won’t pretend to be. I can only talk about what I’m learning, and why it’s important. I have learned a lot about questioning myself and my need to speak during my life. I’ve had a lot of conversations with fellow white people over the years and especially in the last few weeks to try to help others understand what is helpful in this moment and what is not. And I’ve had Black friends remind me what is helpful and what is not. And I have been reminded that when in doubt, listening instead of speaking is usually the best route.
You can hurt people with both your words and your silence, but at the end of the day you can fix your silence with communication—you can never take back the things you’ve said that have hurt someone, and you can never erase or change how it affects them in that moment. This is especially important to remember. I’ve been reminded of it a lot.
And it’s helped me come up with questions I often ask myself before I choose to speak about something, and questions I reflect on after I’ve spoken, whether it’s with my mouth or typing up a tweet or a text.
Before I speak:
What am I trying to communicate and why does it need to be right now?
Why do I need this person or audience to hear this specifically?
If I speak, will it contribute something positive to the conversation going on, will it do nothing, or is there a way it might be harmful?
Am I providing advice or resources that will push towards some kind of positive change?
Do I really need to say this?
After I speak:
Do I need to keep speaking?
Did I say things that reflect my values and my character? If not, why?
I don’t mean for this to be a school lesson or to be presumptuous and assume you haven’t already thought about these things or don’t. But I know that as someone who often needs to be checked and for people to lovingly step in and help me unravel my trauma patterns and habits, most of us need someone to step in and remind us to reflect. Sometimes we want to help and we think we’re helping by speaking, but we aren’t. Most of the emotions and connotations we have tied to the idea of silence are shame and fear—and I agree that there are definitely bad kinds of silences, the kinds of silence that white people have employed for years when it comes to choosing not to speak out about violence and racism.
But there is also joy and hope in silence. The joy and hope that comes from learning when your own voice and perspective is needed and when you can listen and pass the microphone. The question is not if we’re going to mess up or not. We’re all going to mess up. It’s going to be uncomfortable. The question is how we use our voices and our silences strategically and kindly when it counts. The question is:
Who is my silence helpful to? Who does it give power to?
I believe in our ability to build a better world. The only way we can do that is by learning how to talk to each other. And that includes what we choose not to say, and when we allow our own silence to give more space to someone else who needs it more.