On Knowing When to Shut Up

A well-timed word can be a salve, but sometimes when it’s not your place, speaking up can be more of a bomb than a balm.

I’m a fixer. Meyers-Briggs Personality Type INFJ: The Counselor. My dude frequently reminds me with a grin more wry than not, “You have kind of a speaking-up-for-people thing.” His wry grin is appropriate; in the daily battles of ideologies and -isms we all face, my words are my power, and I am reluctant ever to admit that there isn’t a place for them. See a friend getting picked on? I’m usually the first one in the fray shooting my mouth off and putting someone else in their place.

It’s a bad habit sprung from good intentions.

But in the last year or so I’ve started to learn that there are a few times when it’s really, really good for me just to shut up.

1. Discussions of Race. It’s one thing for me, as a white woman who enjoys all the privilege that accompanies that designation in society, to try to help school other white folks on their privilege; it’s another thing for me to stick my size-9s in my mouth and choke on them. The only time I’m confident it’s my job to speak up in conversations about racism are when (as gently as possible) I can help correct what I can only think to call other white people’s accidental racisms. What I mean by that are acts that are racist but that the white person thinks are not racist. Like here on Persephone (to call myself out as an apt example), when someone wrote a really provocative article about natural African American hair and how different white people wanted to touch hers or told her it smelled bad or was ugly. Thinking I was being helpful-and-not-racist by trying to “make up” for her experiences (I know now, and I am cringing as I admit this), I told her I’d always envied African-American hair and thought it was beautiful.

Missing the Point Academy, here is your newest pupil, Ms. Ruby Bruiseday, Accidental Racist at large. My tone might be light here, but my message is serious: I was so embarrassed (and so sorry) when I finally took a step back from the situation and realized how inappropriate my input had been.

Accidental Racism is what I think of when white people blunder through racially charged situations trying desperately to make the best of things, and their ignorance starts showing (see some of the discussions that have been going on around the SlutWalk N-Word Sign lately for a good example of a time when it would be great if white people would shut up). I believe firmly and wholeheartedly that one’s ignorance is one’s own responsibility to fix. Yet I’m really grateful for the friends I have who’ve been kind enough to pull me aside and say, “Hey, do you see what you did there? That’s, you know. Racist.” And they’ve been right on those occasions, and when my ass is showing, you’d better believe I’m glad I get another opportunity to eradicate the hidden cobwebs of ingrained prejudice that still linger in my life. The “accidental” part of it – the good intentions – don’t excuse or make up for the ignorance and the racism. That’s why situations like this are best if people in the privileged group learn to shut up and learn from the people who can best teach them (basically anyone not in the privileged group, but especially people who have suffered, witnessed, or experienced the oppression at hand), rather than needing to assert our voices to assuage white guilt or identify ourselves as “allies.” Yeah, yeah. You know what speaks louder than assertions of solidarity? Actually demonstrating solidarity by sitting down and shutting up.

2. Discussions of Class Privilege. I’ve had times when I was poor and unemployed and panicked about how I was going to eat, and some of them have been scary, but the truth is, I’ve never lacked a certain number of the accoutrements of class privilege. My parents own a house I could always move back into if things got really bad. I have a college degree from a private university. Currently, I’m employed with a good salary doing work I like. And I’m engaged to marry a man who makes like twice what I make. Things are, financially, decent for me for the first time in forever. Was I panicking about finding a job as recently as July? Sure. But for every moment of panic, I also had another layer or five of safety nets beneath me.

So many people don’t. So I’ve learned that it’s best if I keep my mouth shut and not try to commiserate with friends or acquaintances who are sincerely worried about finances, or who try to relate stories of the poverty in which they grew up. Frankly, speaking up at this point is just insensitive. And trying to convince my friends who are money-panicked and whose parents and grandparents were always money-panicked that I get how they feel, when I’ve got a job and a roof over my head, stinks of the same kind of classism that fueled the Tea Party’s comments about “class warfare” against the super rich. Give me a break.

3. Times of Bereavement. This should be so, so obvious. And I probably learned this lesson earlier than any other; I used to work at a funeral home, and so I learned fast what kinds of actions and words are actually comforting the time of a loss, and which are not. This is one of those situations in which less is so much more. Generally, no one who is grieving wants to hear much from anyone, but if you feel the need to say something, please for the love of all that is holy just say, “I am sorry for your loss. Please let me know if you need anything,” and leave it at that. No platitudes about someone being in a better place, or their suffering being over, or “at least they knew Jesus” or whatever. Keep it simple.

It should also go without saying, but I’ve seen it too often to know it can’t, that the death of another person (whether someone within your circle of acquaintance or a celebrity of broad recognition) is not an appropriate opportunity to express one’s opinions about eternity. Meaning: speculating about the Biblical destination of a person who has just passed away is in really poor taste. Similarly, a person’s death is not a good opportunity to make a political point. (One of our editors witnessed someone proclaiming in the middle of a discussion about Steve Jobs’ contributions to the world, this week, that it was a “good thing Steve Jobs’ mother didn’t believe in pro-choice!” Lady, can it!) This is just basic tact, but somehow many people seem capable of forgetting that golden rule when emotions are running high.

I guess in general, when in doubt, if you’re feeling too many feelings and at least one of them is too strong a desire to proclaim your perspective into the middle of a conversation, it might be a graceful time to bow out. Besides: listening can teach you even more than asking questions can. And who isn’t interested in learning a little more?

By Meghan Young Krogh

Meghan had a number of quality writing mentors over the course of her education, which just goes to show that you can't blame the teacher for the way the student turns out. Team Oxford Comma represent.

6 replies on “On Knowing When to Shut Up”

Oh my goodness. All of this: yes.

When it comes to discussing race and privilege, I have been learning (mostly from you folks at Persephone, but also from some new, good friends in my life) that I really can do more by listening meekly than opening my ignorant mouth. I have to say, it has been galling to realize how little I actually know about suffering, about lack of safety nets, about what it feels like to endure micro AND macro aggression, day in and day out.

Unfortunately, it also makes me unclear about how to participate, how to agitate for change, how to work against those forces that seek oppression and injustice.

Hoping that if I sit quietly and listen long enough, I’ll figure it out.

Uuuuugh bereavement. One of my good friends passed away recently (as in… Wednesday). It was completely out of the blue.

The number of times I have had to bust out teacher-voice to mere acquaintances and say “I do not wish to discuss it” has been astounding, especially when they didn’t know the person. At work, I had my boss make it clear to everyone when I was out that, when I came back, I did not want to discuss anything about being out (and he, being a pretty good boss now that we’re not working together on a super-stressful project, made sure to tell everyone… and, of course, the one guy HAD to show how sensitive he was and be all “I know you probably need to talk to someone…” yeah, but not you, GTFO.). There are exactly two people at work who I felt okay discussing things with: the guy who was a mutual friend with the deceased (and with whom we exchanged “how are you holding up?”s with accompanying eye-rolls because OMG we have heard that every two seconds) and my cube-neighbor, who supplied me with a steady stream of distracting poop jokes all day.

Anyway. I’m sorry I turned this into my own rant, but… yeah. To be fair, I always feel really weird when other people are going through it and I don’t know what to say… but that’s why I generally keep it to “I’m sorry for your loss, let me know if there’s anything I can do or if you need to talk to someone.”

I so rarely ever know what to say to people in times of bereavement. Once, a good friend of mine told me his aunt had died and I struggled to find words, so I defaulted on my Christian upbringing and I said, “I’m so sorry. I’ll be praying for her and her family.” He responded with, “You’ll be praying for my aunt? She’s dead!” I was mortified. I think I need bigger shoes to fill that gaping hole called my mouth. You are so right about these.

I used to think if I could just be a hair more eloquent it would somehow make me a better support to people who are grieving. Nope. They mostly, across the board, just don’t want to hear other people talk. They want to be able to talk, sometimes, but they don’t need any kind of response besides, “Yeah,” or “I’m sorry.” So in cases of bereavement I’m perpetually surprised and reassured that the best response isn’t poetic, eloquent, or all-encompassing. It’s just short and simple and sincere.

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