When I’m with almost anyone except my husband or my mom, I talk less than the other person. The less I know the person, or larger the group, the less I talk. It takes an effort for me to open up. Sometimes others have to ask multiple questions to draw me out of my shell. At the school where I teach, some staff members gave each teacher a certificate with a nickname, and mine was “The Quiet One.” This habit has become increasingly pronounced as I get older, and I’ve become increasingly self-conscious about it, which of course just makes it worse. There are several reasons for it, some good and some bad.
Listening to others is good. Asking questions and being curious is good. Being open to learning about another person is good. Getting outside my own head and focusing attention on others is good. These advantages of my habit certainly motivate me to keep my mouth shut during conversations. And like I said, it’s sometimes been a very good thing for me.
But shyness is bad. Inhibition is bad. Reticence for its own sake is bad. Fear of judgment is bad. Fear of the intimacy that accompanies candid disclosure is bad. If I stay quiet because I’m convinced that nothing I might say could possibly be worth wasting the other person’s time with, that’s not just bad, it’s poisonous.
I’ve been thinking about this habit of mine for a few months now. I first began to put it in a larger context after reading an excerpt from The Shelf: From LEQ to LES: Adventures in Extreme Reading, by Phyllis Rose (which has joined my ever-growing list of books to read). The excerpt includes a smart update of Virginia Woolf’s idea about Shakespeare’s sister, which Rose calls “Prospero’s Daughter.” Rose recaps Woolf’s essay, discussing how women of a hundred years ago could easily see
“what relative value their society put on their minds and the minds of their brothers. This, in turn, would affect their self-confidence, and more than anything else except talent, self-confidence is what an artist requires, a belief that what you have to say, or the vision of the world that you feel it in yourself to convey, is important.”
And that idea is what made me see myself in the essay, and made me see internalized sexism in my worst habit. My diffidence is the inverse of mansplaining: self-repression rather than interruption or verbal dismissal. I don’t just keep quiet because others are busy talking, although that happens. I keep quiet because I don’t have the confidence to speak.
What I’ve experienced is something others have described and documented at length. This article on apology culture does a great job summarizing social expectations for women’s speech:
‘the talkativeness of women has been gauged in comparison not with men but with silence. Women have not been judged on the grounds of whether they talk more than men, but of whether they talk more than silent women.’ The expectation, then, is that women are (or should be) silent and when they are not, they are taught to apologise.’
Lena Dunham connects these gendered expectations regarding speech to the concepts of oversharing and ‘TMI’:
The term “oversharing” is so complicated because I do think that it’s really gendered. I think when men share their experiences, it’s bravery and when women share their experiences, it’s some sort of — people are like, “TMI.” Too much information has always been my least favorite phrase because what exactly constitutes too much information? It seems like it has a lot to do with who is giving you the information, and I feel as though there’s some sense that society trivializes female experiences. And so when you share them, they aren’t considered as vital as their male counterparts’ [experiences] and that’s something that I’ve always roundly rejected.
Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle, “an autobiographical novel” that goes into minute detail about its male author’s family life, Katie Roiphe (who isn’t always as astute as she is here) questions whether the novel would have been as well-received if it were written by a woman instead. She concludes that it’s old news when women write domestic stories, but the same work feels fresh and new coming from a man, simply because at this point in history, relatively few men have made the home the focus of their life’s work and written about it. The annual VIDA count is another demonstration of how women don’t get the attention they deserve.
See, it’s not just my perception: people just aren’t as interested in what women have to say. At some level I’ve noticed that and internalized it. Staying quiet is a logical reaction to constantly being told that you’re boring. If I’m afraid that expressing an opinion will make me seem presumptuous or arrogant, that’s because I’ve been taught to feel that way by a culture that doesn’t value women’s opinions. It’s because you can’t be feminine and ladylike while also being brash and bold, and given the choice between the two, I picked the one that would cause fewer conflicts and make me more friends.
And the worst thing to me is that it’s not just about conversations and spoken words. To be completely honest with myself, I have to admit that THIS, not time, is the single biggest factor that keeps me from writing. When I manage to write anyway, my lack of confidence directs my pen away from the things that matter most and the things that scare me the most, away from original writing and toward critiques of others, or toward my journal, a private outlet that no one will ever see. It’s because at some level, I’m sure that no one cares to hear what I’ve got to say. And if I keep telling myself that message, eventually I’ll keep myself from ever having anything to say.
My reading of The Confidence Code: The Art and Science of Self-Assurance–What Women Should Know really helped me to put these ideas together and gave me the courage to write about them and make this writing public. In this awesome book, Kay and Shipman define confidence as the quality that turns thoughts into action. Clearly, that’s what I’m lacking in the writing department. The authors discuss both the causes of women’s lower levels of confidence, and what to do about it. There are many causes, from the biological to the social, and many suggested remedies, from the simple and concrete to the challenging and life-altering. I learned that I’m probably prone to low confidence because of my genes and the role of neurotransmitters in confidence, including dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. It stands to reason that anyone who’s ever been prescribed an SSRI is likely to have lower-than-average serotonin, and thus lower-than-average confidence.
In going on about how no one cares about women’s voices and stories, I’m not trying to make myself a victim. I’m just being reflective, looking at myself, noticing something I don’t like, and wondering why I do that dumb thing. I can’t change a bad habit without understanding how I fell into it. Answering that question involves recognizing false beliefs I hold, and tracing the origin of those false beliefs leads me to look outside myself at the world around me. I’m not absolving myself of responsibility. This is an explanation, not an excuse, and one that is meant to fuel greater efforts to overcome this bad habit. I hope to motivate myself to do the hard work necessary to build my confidence by reminding myself that in doing so, I’m proving how valuable women’s voices and stories are. To succeed, I’m going to need self-compassion, an important practice for overcoming the perfectionism that creates many women’s confidence deficits. For me, self-compassion means forgiving myself for letting myself down, and in order to do that, I needed to understand my lack of confidence in a larger context. I guess this is just me doing cognitive behavioral therapy on myself.
So now that I’ve recognized and understood and owned my problem, I have to either do something about it or let it beat me. I guess this is my public commitment to work on speaking up more often, to write more and take more chances with the things I write about. But it’s hard. No one should have to be a culture warrior 24/7. It shouldn’t be required for someone to go to heroic lengths to get to where someone else started out. They say that as women get older they get more confident. I’m 30 now, so I’m due for a bit of that confidence any day now. I hope I can channel that self-assurance into speaking and writing and making my voice heard.
Maybe reading can help me. I especially like the conclusion of the excerpt from Phyllis Rose’s book:
Reading is almost always subversive. From the time you read the next night’s fairy tale under the covers by flashlight when you have already had your bedtime story from Daddy and are supposed to be asleep to the time you are an adult reading junk, hoping no one catches you at it, reading is private; that’s the most seductive thing about it. It’s you and the book. Women’s reading will respond to women’s needs. Men’s will respond to men’s. And if men never begin to read fiction by women, well, as my mother always said to comfort me when I didn’t get something I wanted (and it never failed to work), “It’s their loss.” We’re all better off for enmeshing ourselves with what we are not, and that may best be done in love, but fiction works, too.
So, as I always have, I can use reading to empower and educate myself. However, I’ve never found “It’s their loss” to be quite as comforting as Rose does. In this case, men’s refusal to listen to women’s stories represents a loss to men, first and foremost. Their worlds stay that much smaller, that much more homogenous. But it also means that nothing changes: the system that devalues women’s voices is perpetuated, and women continue to be silenced.
I guess it’s a chicken-or-egg question: does change come first from inside or outside? The answer, of course, is both, but I only have control over one of those. So I need to just summon the courage to keep talking and keep writing, regardless of whether anyone cares what I have to say, because then at least I’m not selling myself short. That way I won’t have the regrets that would come with giving up. Then, when people are ready to pay attention, I’ll be ready too.