I’ve been thinking a lot this week about being quiet, about listening, about taking up less space. It’s kind of a hard topic to write about publicly because by doing so, I’m being a bit noisy and centering my own thoughts. But here I am. Apologies if this post feels a bit disjointed – I’m still trying to connect all these pieces.
Talking Too Much
Last week I got frustrated with my 5 year old because he wasn’t listening to something I was saying that I thought was important. In a moment of frustration I told him “I’m just not going to talk anymore” and tried to remain silent for the next hour. It didn’t work very well, but the event triggered a memory from my youth: I went to a summer camp when I was young that was also attended by the Trudeaus (yes, THE Trudeaus). One summer I was fortunate to cross paths with Mike Trudeau, who was a counselor at the time. The summer camp offered extended canoe trips and I believe we were in the middle of a 36 day trip when Mike declared that he was taking a vow of silence for a whole day. Caught up in the mystique of his vow and I’m sure in awe of his “coolness”, a number of campers also scheduled days of silence throughout the trip, including myself.
A day of not talking was like heaven for me. I’ll get more into this later but let’s jump back to my kid ignoring me for a moment.
As a parent, I often talk over my kids’ heads. I talk this way with intention because I don’t believe in demoralizing young people with baby talk. I also do it to keep my sanity because explaining how I truly feel is something I really value for myself and value in my relationship with others. Most of the time, my kids understand but in the moments that they don’t, I do have a habit of trying to over explain. This is when they tune out. I know it happens. It’s totally forgivable, but is also sometimes infuriating and I feel like no one ever hears me or bothers to listen. I get sore.
My moment of frustration where I claimed I was never going to talk again was a sore moment, but has triggered some important reflections.
Why Do I Talk So Much?
I didn’t talk until I was 2.5 years old. My parents believed that it was because I had hearing issues which were then resolved by ear tubes. While I definitely had hearing problems and my speech may have come as a result of being able to hear better, I still continued to have problem speaking in public well into my teens. I was exceptionally shy. I couldn’t even order food at a restaurant. During these years, I spent most of my time in public spaces trying to find quiet corners or hiding under tables. When I look at this behaviour now, coupled with the fact that have undiagnosed but textbook signs of being a highly-sensitive person (now considered symptoms of autism) it’s highly likely that I was simply non-verbal as a young child. (Please keep in mind that this is only speculation, I haven’t been officially evaluated for autism or any other neurodivergent traits.)
During my school years, these qualities were trained out of me. Forced public speaking and leadership roles through sports dragged me out of my shell. These activities were rewarded (literally) and I often overcame my discomfort by disassociating or pretending to be someone else in those situations. By the time I finished university and entered the workforce, I was able to comfortably speak in a room with people, and found that often others agreed with what I had to say, which in turn re-bolstered my confidence.
In other words, I learned ways to mask and cope.
Back to my vow of silence: on that canoe trip when a bunch of us chose silence for a day in the northern Ontario wilderness, it was not only easy for me, but preferable. I remember feeling immense comfort and relief knowing that I didn’t have to talk to anyone for a whole dang day. It was blissful. The dip and pull of paddle after paddle as I could let my thoughts drift endlessly. I could create my own little bubble of existence without having to break out of my comfort zone. After the event, many of the other kids acknowledged that being non-verbal had been a real challenge for them. Obviously not so for me.
So now I’m exploring this idea: if talking makes me feel uncomfortable, why do I do it?
At one point in my career, I actually dreamed of becoming a public speaker and giving presentations for a living. I have voluntarily given many speeches and taken up leadership roles, often at public events. Why would I chose to do something that naturally made me so uncomfortable?
Well, because of the rewards and capital-S Success I would see as a result. My whole childhood and into my 20s, I had been rewarded for speaking up. I think that part of me actually equates being loud, verbose, and well spoken with capitalist success. Now that I’m rejecting that success as a measurement of well-being or happiness, I can also re-evaluate how I feel about spending so much time being loud and taking up space.
Is the desire to be heard something deep rooted in ourselves or is it a side effect of a system that values success on how much noise we make in an already noisy world? Do we value ourselves on how much space we can take up? Do we need to be loud and take up this space in order to contribute to community?
I’m obviously extrapolating here, assuming that the opposite of being quiet is to be loud and equating that with the idea of being noisy and taking up space. We can always be loud in ways that don’t necessarily equate to capitalist success, and there are many folks that have seen immense capitalist success from their ability to be quiet. What I’m trying to do here though is explore the idea of quietness from a cultural perspective, and I think western colonial culture often equates success with the amount of attention you receive as well as the amount of space that you can hold, often by being the loudest and biggest in the room.
In summary, I was taught that one can’t be successful by simply being quiet.
I was listening to a show on the CBC last week about social media and how it’s robbing us of our attention. It was a good show, but I was especially interested in the introduction of a French philosopher and activist, Simone Weil who lived in Europe at the beginning of the 1900s. Among other amazing work, Weil believe that the act of listening was sacred, that listening was an act of leaving one’s own thoughts, of detachment from one’s self, and connecting with another. She believed that “Attention is the highest and purest form of generosity.” (Reflection Of Reflections, pp 48-49) I was moved by this idea of giving one’s attention to someone else and how listening is rooted in connection.
I admit to being a poor listener. I often have a hard time paying attention without my internal voice piping up or awkwardly interrupting with my own interjections. This contributes directly to my social anxiety.
I’m working on this.
I learning that part of being quiet might be about developing the ability to listen and pay attention; to connect with those around me, my human and non-human kin; to value my own silence in a way that allows others to fill that space; to let my listening reflect my caring, let my listening be generous.
Relearning How To Be Quiet
This is not a new mission. I have had many times in recent years where I was keenly aware that I was taking up more space than I was comfortable with. I know that sometimes I am too loud and sometimes I am really bad at listening. I know, too, that it is not my fault. I live in a culture that rewards loudness and places far too little value on listening. I have been taught to take up space and that my success can be measured by how well I occupy that space.
I have been working on becoming a better listener. I now also want to learn how to be quiet. I want to take up less space. I want to learn how to decenter myself. It’s ironic that I am writing about this and putting that writing out into the world. I’m not sure if it’s in conflict with being quiet yet. I haven’t figured that piece out. Here’s what I have figure out:
- I am more comfortable when I’m given the space to be quiet
- The culture in which I exist has pushed me out of that space of comfort in the name of capitalist success
- I no longer value myself based on that criteria of success
- I need to be better at listening
- I want to relearn how to be quiet, take up less space, and decenter myself