It’s impossible to talk about silence and speaking up without also talking about culture. Each culture has its own norms regarding the value and power of one’s voice — what speaking up means, what staying silent means. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve had to hold back what I truly feel for fear of upsetting someone in authority. Sometimes the threat of doing so was real, sometimes it’s imagined — it didn’t matter. Because all it really takes is a couple of times of upsetting a powerful other in order to learn that speaking up had consequences, negative ones.
In many cultures, and especially Chinese culture, silence is often considered respect for authority; only speaking up when asked was a norm when I was growing up. Over time, you slowly learn to stay silent, to comply, to not say what you truly mean, to not say anything for fear of ‘getting involved’ — whatever getting involved means. Tribal consciousness around norms like this are so powerful, and have a great hold over individuals, whether they are aware of it or not.
This is compounded by the experience of being sensitive and taking on responsibility for others’ feelings. I grew up with a fear of hurting others by speaking about my true feelings — even as, looking back, they were completely valid. That responsibility was put upon me by adults who were made more anxious by the truth, especially when I inadvertently pointed out something that made them uncomfortable. It is much easier to blame the other (and the weaker/more powerless) for ‘making you feel’ a certain way than to really sit down and examine why a certain feeling was triggered — regardless of culture. When healthy ways of communicating are not explicitly taught or modeled, how does one learn? You learn instead the unspoken norms about acceptable standards of behavior.
So from an early age, I learned that the truth is dangerous, that somehow I had the ability to make someone flip out just because of what I say, and that my voice is not welcomed unless I worded it absolutely perfectly and said the exactly right thing that would not upset anyone. On the upside I learned how to write (relatively) well. However, till this day, I am slowly excavating myself out from those years of silence and losing touch with my voice. I had to spend a couple of years going through a period of grief as I learned how to write and speak from the heart again — and in the process, spitting out all the poison I had been told about myself, all the things I started to believe — in order to get back in touch with my voice. I believe I am still going through this process.
On the flip side, there is beauty in silence, too. Silence that precedes judicious speech makes speaking up and using one’s voice extra meaningful because the power of speech isn’t wasted on superfluous uses. But this silence has to be intentional, has to be freely chosen. Silence when imposed as a tool by the powerful is crushing, suffocating, and ultimately, deadening.
If you are also learning how to use your voice again, know that It’s okay to not say it perfectly the first time or even the first 100 times. It’s okay to stumble over your words. It’s okay to slow down and repeat yourself until you are heard. The important thing is to speak and to hear yourself speaking (or to write, and to read your words…).
You can also observe your culture for its messages about silence and speaking up:
- Who seems to speak up most often?
- Whose voice seems to have more power? (more respected, more listened to)
- How often do you find yourself holding back or speaking up? Which is your norm? What do you tell yourself about holding back versus speaking up?
Different cultural factors that have an impact on how, when and where you use your voice include your age, gender, race, minority status, immigration status, socioeconomic status, etc. and any combination of these. Just like I had experienced, your role in your family and the way your family members communicate and relate to each other also have an impact on how you wield your voice.
Sometimes a lot of this is unconscious and it’s hard to know what your norm is until you get to compare it to someone else’s. For that reason, traveling or interacting with someone from another culture can be so helpful.
I believe that the act of using your voice should be something that’s accessible to everyone, and not necessarily in the form of verbal communication but through all forms of self-expression. I think it should be a basic human freedom, and I know in many places in the world, or even in your own neighborhood, that’s not the case.
But as always, I think it starts with each and every one of us lighting the flame within ourselves so that the light that it casts can help illuminate others, too.
(a) Concept of tribal consciousness from Caroline Myss.
Artwork by Mara Berendt Friedman