Who's Keeping You Quiet?

Fear of people's reactions can lead us to self-censor.

Posted Sep 15, 2016

Geralt/Pixabay CC0 public domain
Source: Geralt/Pixabay CC0 public domain

Ever struggled to begin a tough conversation, or to answer a tricky question? It can be hard to get the words out sometimes, especially when the stakes are high. Shyness, shame, or simple stress can make it difficult to gather our thoughts, to find the right words, and offer something up to those around us.   

But some people are easier to talk to than others. When we’re trying to express ourselves, it matters who’s listening, and how; anticipating other people’s reactions can help us speak, or keep us quiet. It can make a big difference to know you’re talking to a friend, or at least a sympathetic listener, someone who’ll give you time to shape your words, and won’t jump to misunderstand you.

A careful listener can be especially important when what we need to say makes us feel unsafe: a confession, a request which makes us vulnerable, a hesitant truth about how we really feel. Have you ever tried to confide in someone, and received unwelcome laughter, a shocked expression, or critical words in return? That kind of experience can make it harder to speak next time around; often it seems easier just to keep quiet when you don’t know how your words will be received.

So what does it take for someone to be a good listener, especially when we’re taking risks with what we say? A good listener needs the ability to understand, to take us seriously, to help us speak. Some listeners are good because they know so much about us – sometimes an old friend can be the best sounding-board. On the other hand, it can sometimes be easier to open our hearts to a stranger, perhaps someone who may be less likely to judge us.

Either way, humility is key to good listening: even our best friends need to recognize that they don’t know everything about us and our situations. Each of us has different experiences, different perspectives.Used wisely, this infinite variety can help us engage and learn from one another. But when we fail to notice this diversity, it can cause problems, making it hard for us to appreciate where others are coming from.

This can happen to anyone. But philosopher Kristie Dotson has investigated the ways in which disadvantaged people are especially vulnerable to other people’s short-sightedness or failure to appreciate difference: when you are a minority, when you are relatively powerless, you may feel it is too dangerous for you to speak when the people around you don’t recognize their own limitations. 

Misunderstandings can sometimes occur despite everyone’s best efforts. But this becomes an ethical issue when the audience really should have known better, when open eyes and open ears would have allowed them to empathize more, and acknowledge that they don't have the full picture. Professor Dotson writes movingly of ways in which black women, in particular, can be on the receiving end of such avoidable but harmful misunderstandings. As she points out, this can lead women to self-censor, because silence seems preferable to routine dismissal or rejection.   Dotson calls this ‘testimonial smothering’ – a reminder that although it may seem like self-censorship, it arises from anticipation of others’ negligence. 

Many of us are in a position to listen better, listen harder, listen more carefully.  We can become better listeners by recognizing our own limitations. If we can do so, then the people around us will be able to speak more freely, and we might just learn something new.  

Find out more:

In this fascinating interview, Professor Dotson speaks about her own life experiences, and how these shaped her thinking about speech and silence.  And she chats with philosopher Myisha Cherry on the terrific ‘Unmute’ podcast.

For more detail, try Dotson’s ‘Tracking Epistemic Violence, Tracking Practices of Silence’, Hypatia 26.2, 236-257 (it’s available online here).