Learning to Speak Imperfectly

Speaking up in group settings makes me uncomfortable. Usually, the conversation moves so fast that I don’t have enough time to chew on what people are saying, evaluate it, put together a thoughtful response, and thread it in at an appropriate time. So instead I stay silent and try to listen as actively as I can.

I used to disparage myself for this. At school, participation was such a big factor in grades yet no matter how I tried I just could not think of anything to add. I literally cried in a bathroom after one class because I was so disappointed with myself for not even being able to think of one, just one thing to say. Then in social settings I was afraid that my silence meant that I had nothing interesting to say and that consequently I wasn’t interesting.

I think Holly Wood described the fear of speaking up best in her piece, Musings on the Nature of Feminine Perfectionism, when she attributed the fear of articulating for yourself to a perfectionism akin to showing up to a conversation with battle armor:

The fact that you showed up with the armor on at all tells me you’re afraid… that you’ve been conditioned to see every encounter as an opportunity for judgment and assessment rather than an opportunity for conversation, a potential chance for growth, a fleeting moment of mutual recognition.

Like Wood describes, I came to see moments of interacting with others as moments of reckoning, not exploration. I was afraid if I didn’t say anything, no one would remember me or ever be interested to knowing me. I was afraid if I did say something, it’d be something stupid and that would be the body of work that defined what people thought of me. And to some extent, some of these fears were probably founded given stereotype threat and the higher standards that women have to aspire to be seen as equal.

As such, by not speaking up I never gave myself the space to learn how to be okay with being inarticulate, that discomfort of holding onto half-baked thoughts that slowly come together as I translated real-time into fuzzy, inexact words. In the essay The Transformation Of Silence Into Action, Audre Lorde argued that this notion of not feeling able to speak up goes to show that:

We have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.

Lorde observes that the notion that it is preferable to be silent than to be imperfectly expressed with all its consequences is a false one, for it further prolongs any opportunity for growth and solidarity in wait of an asymptotic aspiration of ‘that final luxury of fearlessness’. It’s a description that resonates with me, because I can think of so many times where I backed out of conversations and thought to myself, “I’m not prepared for this conversation, but eventually when I am, I’ll jump into the conversation.” Yet that feeling of preparation has never come, and my silence has only prevented other people from engaging with me and the growth that comes with that.

On one hand, there are definitely valid reasons to be silent in conversations that don’t reflect on my value as an interesting person. I think it’s okay to not offer anything if I don’t feel informed enough or don’t have anything salient to say. I shouldn’t have to fake knowing more about a topic than I do to be a valued participant in a discussion. And if the conversation is centered on experiences and identities that I don’t have any knowledge about, I’m there more to learn than to offer opinions.

But I think it’s also important to learn to be okay with speaking imperfectly, because it’s the only way to learn how to speak up at all. Heben Nigatu said it best in her 2017 XOXO Festival talk when she encouraged the audience to “learn how to grow in public”. There are people who might fault you for speaking imperfectly, but there are also people who will appreciate you for your vulnerability, support you in it, and even teach you something new.

I think I’m starting to speak up more now. The week after the election, I had somehow found myself at a table of older, more conservative men for an entire dinner and the topic came up. Maybe it was the wine, maybe it was grief about the results, maybe it was the boredom of having sat silently through all of their other irrelevant topics, but I suddenly found myself speaking up. My hands were shaking. I was stuttering a lot and probably came off as too angry to be convincing. I didn’t have the right stats memorized to back me up. I couldn’t fully remember the arguments that had convinced me of my convictions. I don’t think I changed any minds. But I broke the silence and that’s a start.