Women: Learn To Speak Up

We all have the right to show up and speak. I also know it takes practice. 

The patron saint of leaning in co-wrote an article in the New York Times Review this weekend called Speaking While Female. The title caught my eye, as it brought to mind similar phrases such as Driving While Drunk or Shopping While Hungry.

Is Speaking While Female one of those regrettable things women do even though we have been warned it is very, very dangerous?

Or is it that we lean into silence at work and in the world because it is more comfortable to not speak?

Silence is the kind of comfort you can sink into and hold onto because it is common. It feels right. It is easier to not engage in debate at work when you think your idea is going to be shot down. It is easier to not say anything to the person you love when you aren’t getting something you need if you believe saying something will only create conflict or hurt feelings. It is even easier to just eat a meal you didn’t order because it really isn’t that big a deal, is it?

Yes, it is a big deal.

It is fundamental because, as Rebecca Solnit reminded me, “Having the right to show up and speak are basic to survival, to dignity, and to liberty.”

My voice gives me presence. Not the sound of it but the very fact it exists and I can exercise it. When I speak out loud and in the company of others, I take responsibility for my world. My voice creates it, shapes it, defends it, and shares it. Without it, I am invisible and when I am invisible, things can happen to me but I am not able to make anything happen on my own. This is the real cost of comfort. This is the actual cost of silence.

I was raised among vociferous and opinionated women who were not afraid to speak their minds. I have had the further privilege of being supported by many men who actively seek out conversation with me and encourage deep, respectful debate. In my life I have had opportunity after opportunity to practice my voice, to use it and strengthen it until it has become something I can finally recognize as my own. On the ladder of Solnit’s right to speech I have passed survival, through dignity and into liberty because I am able to speak my world out loud and create it in my own image.

I agree we all have the right to show up and speak. I also know it takes practice to be free. Here are a few things I have learned that have made the biggest difference:

1. Stop waiting for the right moment.

There is never a perfect moment to say or do most things. There will certainly never be a perfect moment for you to “be yourself.” Every moment is the right moment. The beauty about not waiting is realizing that if you feel like the moment has passed, there is another happening right now. Pick one and start there. String a few of them together and see how that feels.

2. Don’t ask a question when you’re really making a statement.

Instead of saying “Do you think we should go over that contract?” say “I’m concerned I didn’t understand this part of the contract. I want to look at it again.” Say what you mean. This is something I have to practice all the time. It is the kind of hard work that forces you to be attentive to yourself and give voice to your desires and needs.

3. Learn to move a conversation forward through disagreement as often as agreement.

Women’s speech patterns tend toward gathering while men’s speech patterns tend toward sowing. Men will spread a conversation out with lots of ideas, banter, changes of direction, and digression. In conversation, women tend toward keeping everyone on the same page, building agreement, and making smooth transitions. Engage with the jagged edges of a conversation. Don’t sit back when you are challenged, say yes to the sometimes uncertain prospect of defending what you think when it is in opposition to what someone else thinks.

4. You don’t have to explain and you don’t have to apologize.

Especially if your explanation or apology is, in any way, minimizing what you think, feel, do, want, say, hope for, love, hate, expect, or need. It is your world. You are creating it. No one needs to know or approve of the values you choose to live by.

5. Read this. Read it again, if you already have. Soraya Chemaly gives you the words to practice every day. Put them on your mirror or put them in your wallet. Look at them all the time. Remember them. Most of all, though, say them out loud. Speaking yourself into existence is a responsibility as much as a right.

Aimee Perkins is a Chicago writer and performer. She’s active in the live lit community and has graduated from Bath Spa University with an MA in Fiction Writing. She’s currently working on a novel about the financial crisis and blogs regularly at aimeeperkins.com. You can also find her on Twitter @aimee_perkins. 

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