I don’t know why I have no words sometimes. I really wish I did. Instead I sit there squirming in awkwardness, wishing everyone were more comfortable with fewer words. The words I like tend to be printed where they are parceled out and the length of the communication is finite. The words that come to me via my ears are fraught with how I am going to answer them. I think slowly so I know I won’t answer what my real answer is, what my thoughtful answer is.
Or if I say something, I’m afraid it is going to be flung out in to a new world, where everyone can say, “Oh, so you mean…” or use it against me like, “But you said…” Well, maybe I said because I wasn’t ready for it and I had to fill the air with something, anything before my silence was taken as agreement with the talker. I am not allowed to express my thoughts if I stay quiet. It bothers me though that the thoughts had to be prematurely expressed when they were ephemeral and unformed, coiled with potential energy but no kinetic energy.
If you are a person who is constantly talking, it might be hard to imagine what it is like, how physically exhausting it is, to focus on a conversation that your own train of thought is not on board with. It is a constant bifurcation, of swimming upstream to get back in to the right braid of the river.
I have struggled with this language issue all my life. It’s one of the reasons I love being alone, or being with someone who is patient in their words. I like being around someone who is not going to verbally yank on my leash when I’ve found something interesting to sniff.
I have been reading an interesting book about language that had a message I didn’t expect. It is called Language and the Pursuit of Happiness by Chalmers Brothers. The book promises to allow you to have peacefulness and productivity by using a tool you didn’t know you had. As you may have guessed based on the title of the book, this tool is language.
I expected the book would be about using language as a tool to make us feel a certain way about our thoughts. For example, I have used the tactic of “power words” I learned when I read Anthony Robbin’s Awaken the Giant Within . The way this works is when I am feeling sullen, exhausted or overwhelmed I sometimes smile and tell people I am “introspective” or “stimulated” when they ask how I am because using positive words allows me to color my situation. It’s similar to the idea by Gretchen Rubin, author of the Happiness Project who says that acting the way you want to feel is one of the keys to happiness, instead of it being the other way around.
I originally bought Language and the Pursuit of Happiness because I thought it would build on this positivity tactic. The message was different than what I expected though. It was as follows: language is generative.
Language is generative.
Wow. How simple and obvious but I never actually thought about it! Until you express an idea or a fact, it may as well have not existed for the listener. For example, “I want a divorce” or “You have received a promotion.” Did those things exist before they were spoken? Yes, they did but someone had to say the words to you in order for it to be so. And then the whole world changes.
Coming to this simple conclusion has really helped me speak up when I need to. I have been complacent far too many times because of my fear of speaking up. But speaking creates possibilities. It generates outcomes. Staying quiet is shutting doors.
If something is bothering me at work, no one will probably know until I tell him or her. If I am appreciative of something Chief is doing for me, he will probably never know until I tell him. If I have an idea about something being discussed in a meeting, no one else will get to hear it until I speak up.
I might be wrong and I might be put on the spot. I think that is what used to stop me but I have finally decided that the risk is worth it.
I actually heard a really interesting broadcast on BBC the other day. I wish I could find the resource for it because I wasn’t paying attention until something caught my ear. A female economy modeler was speaking and the interviewer was asking her why so few women go in to her field. The interviewee, who was also a professor, speculated on the answer. She noted that very few women would ask questions in the classes she taught. She said that she herself used to be afraid to speak up earlier in her career for fear of saying something wrong and maybe it was this fear of being “wrong” in front of others that prevented women from choosing this career path.
She said that often times she would have the exact same question or comment in her head that a male counterpart would ask a little bit later and then she would kick herself for not speaking up. I have been noticing this a lot about myself lately and have realized I need to work harder about not really caring what people think. I might say something wrong. I might express something controversial that I don’t really care to argue about (either because I want more information before I have the argument or I don’t feel like being attacked and putting up a stand) but staying quiet can be a greater risk. I might honestly ask a stupid question but at least if it’s something burning in my head, I have expressed it. And that is what language is intended to do.
Around Chief, and my close friends and family, I don’t have a problem speaking up, but I know that in the world at large it is something I need to continue to work on. I know being quiet is part of who I am but I also know that part of being successful means speaking up at the right time.