Personal Essay: Quietly Kicking
When women are systemically taught to distrust their own instincts and to defer to the cognitive authority of men, it can be difficult not only to develop appropriate self-trust, but also proper trust in others. (Pohlhaus, G. "Varieties of Epistemic Injustice")
Most women know how to listen. Most women know how to make someone think they’re listening. Know how to smile in a way that encourages but doesn’t patronise. Know how to nod at the right time. Know how to make agreeing mm’s and uhuh’s. Know how to be soft because someone is vulnerable. Know how to leave a pause when the other person hasn’t quite finished talking.
I know how to do these things. I don’t know how to fix my bike.
I was a teenager when I learned quiet could be a skill. A few years later, I learned quiet was a skill I could use on guys I had crushes on. While quiet, I was thoughtful and laid back. Teasingly distant. Attractively contemplative. Saying nothing contented the guys I fancied - older, arrogant, intellectual, creative - because they finally had an audience for their 30-minute lecture on the impact their upcoming sculpture exhibition would have on the monoculture - a big one. My silence reaffirmed their belief that what they had to say deserved to be heard. When I did speak, my words took a recognisable cadence: flowery, inviting, supportive. I was impressive and admired and utterly passive.
I spent my early 20s thinking these men were Gods. I got bored. On sleepless mornings I’d hide under the duvet and work on a poem next to their sleeping backs, scribbling unarticulabilities, then explode to my flatmates the moment I got home: HE DIDN’T EVEN ASK ME HOW MY DAY WAS. I thought it was normal to be one person with my boyfriend and another person entirely - lively, confident, eloquent, unrestrained - with my friends.
Growing up, quiet was a skill most of my family lacked and one I learned for emotional survival. In early adulthood, quiet got me on payrolls and into social circles. Quiet let people confide in me. Unsurprisingly, I found myself the intimate confidant of people I viewed as acquaintances. Susan Gal once wrote, “Where self-exposure is required it is the silent listener who judges.” (Gal, Susan. "FOUR. Between Speech and Silence: The Problematics of Research on Language and Gender") I left those relationships quietly.
In my mid-twenties, I began to share my insights with friends. After many conversations, I learned something: “when a speaker struggles to articulate an experience, they are struggling with an objective difficulty, not a subjective failing” (Medina, José , "Varieties of Hermeneutical Injustice). It is possible to step into an oppressive rhetorical space and not feel your own absence until hours later. Like passivity, quiet is difficult to measure.
Let me add something here: I don’t consider myself a quiet person. Nor do I think quietness is inherently good or bad or that women are terrific listeners, men are rubbish and that’s that. I write in this admittedly binary way because I hope the process of conceptualising, formulating and performing experience in and through language will help me understand why every confident woman I know has left a conversation hating themselves because of everything they couldn’t find the words to say.
The clinical term for the inability to find the word for a known entity is anomia. But I don’t think the inarticulability so often experienced by women and other minority groups can be swept away under a cognitive label. With this topic, I’m walking on well-trodden terrain, but no explanations - intellectual insecurity, lacking self-confidence, a conditioned discomfort with taking up space, epistemic disadvantage, learned dominant vs passive conversational styles - fill the lacuna that forms when a man’s glaring linguistic upfront-ness dominates aural space and you doubt whether you’ve absorbed a scrap of feminism at all.
Quiet can be mistaken for both ignorance and apathy, but it rarely signals either. Not being able to find the words, or rather, the ability to express words can be a result of past silencing - intimate, professional, ideological, structural. You might come from a demographic that society discriminately views as not being worth listening to, going through verbal life with a background inequality of hermeneutical opportunity which means the conceptual terminology you need to understand and articulate your experience just isn’t there. Perhaps you're scared. Perhaps you just want him to like you.
He’s talking about a little-known take on aesthetic instrumentalism. I’m listening. It’s interesting. I say so. He goes on. We continue our act. A perfect contract.