I don’t know when it started exactly, but at some point it became hard for me to speak up. I mainly noticed this in the classroom. I felt so nervous to speak up in class. The majority of thoughts and reactions I had to a classroom discussion went unvoiced. They were too opinion-based, I thought. Not factual enough. They could be argued with, disagreed with. I needed more research, more knowledge, more experience to back up the thoughts and feelings I had about the subject.
On the rare occasions that I did decide to offer up an insight or reflection in class, I had to go through some intense mental acrobatics before my hand would raise and my mouth open. For several minutes beforehand, I would pay minimal attention to the discussion as I rehearsed my statement in my mind—figuring out the smartest way to present my thoughts, writing down notes, trying to recall sources, anything to give what I had to say some weight. My heart would be pounding, palpitating. My face would flush. My knees would bounce.
Then I would speak with a single-minded focus on getting my thoughts out exactly as I had rehearsed them. Then it would be done. I’d sit back in my chair, feel the heat on my face, catch my breath, and try to get my heart to slow down.
I justified my nerves to myself, deciding early on that I was a listener, an observer, a writer. I was oh-so-proud of myself for having located my proper role in social situations.
I have a different opinion of this now. I pinpoint my difficulty in speaking up to one question that niggles at the back of my mind whenever I am in a conversation with more than one other person: Do I have a right to say what I think?
In my experience, this is a gendered phenomenon. I’m generalizing, of course. But from what I’ve observed, most women question if their voices deserve to be heard. They want to have the knowledge, the experience, and the sources to back up their opinions before they feel like they are worth sharing. Women hold themselves to a very high standard. They must have done the research, have their perspectives validated by studies or popular belief. Even direct, personal experience is called into question as a source of knowledge.
Meanwhile, men will just say anything, whatever comes to them, and expect to be heard. No matter how relevant or insightful their thoughts are—or how dumb and uninformed—no matter if their opinion is not backed up by anything, or is even proven to be false, men will share that opinion as easy as you please. They know without any doubt that their opinions deserve to be heard.*
What’s going on here?
Certainly a sense of entitlement, vestigial traces of male privilege that let men know they are entitled to be listened to.
Certainly a devaluing of women’s voices, patriarchal impressions on the psyche that say women should be seen and not heard.
Where do we go from here?
On the one hand, there are certainly some men who could benefit from shutting up every once in awhile and listening to others for a change. This would also benefit the other people in the room who seek to be heard for once.
On the other hand, the world would benefit from more diverse voices speaking up and sharing their experiences. The world benefits from diversity and plurality in general.
So to women, to anyone who has ever found it hard to speak, I say—enough already. You are enough. You don’t need to wait for someone’s approval to speak. You don’t need to earn your right to your opinion. You don’t need to justify every single one of your beliefs with a dozen source notes and hours of research. Speak. The world will be better for hearing your voice.
*For a reflection on responses to this paragraph, check out this post here.