“Why are you so quiet?” A coworker asked me this question a few weeks ago as I walked by his desk. As always, I didn’t know what to say.
Despite the note on my kindergarten report card that said I talked too much in class, I have been shy and quiet for as long as I can remember. Maybe I got in trouble for that kindergarten transgression and overcorrected for the rest of my life. Who knows? But talking in general, and especially in front of people I don’t already know, has been and continues to be a challenge.
Sometimes I literally can’t find the right words. Yesterday, while talking with a neighbor I was completely unable to think of the word for the little rodent that burrows around under grass and ruins lawns. I was thoroughly embarrassed when the neighbor supplied the word “mole.” Of course I knew that, but the word just refused to come when I needed it.
Even when the words themselves don’t fail me, I never know just what to say. I spend a lot of time thinking about what I should say, and sorting out in my mind what words I should use. What if I say the wrong thing? What if I can’t find the right word? What if I hurt someone’s feelings? What if I don’t really know what I’m talking about and say something stupid? What if I say something, as I so often do, in not quite the right way or words, and get laughed at? What if I embarrass myself? I spend so much thought on trying to figure out the right words to say that I miss the chance to say them in context. It is a rare day when I can actually relax and be part of a normal conversation without worrying about saying something wrong.
Instead of getting easier over time, this seems to get harder. As I learn and observe more about the world, other people, and myself it gets harder and harder to find the right words. Every so often an article comes across my social media newsfeed with a list of things not to say. I’m sure you’ve seen them: 17 things not to say to someone who (insert condition of humanity here). As well-meaning as these lists are, for me they are counter-productive. As if I wasn’t already struggling with what I should or shouldn’t say, now I’m getting bombarded with lists of more things I shouldn’t say. I worry so much about unintentionally saying something that might insult or hurt someone, that it seems better to say nothing at all.
It seems I’ve been trying my whole life to deal with this challenge. Once when I was young, my entire family was at together at McDonald’s for dinner. After I was too shy to tell the clerk my order, everyone agreed that I didn’t talk enough, and so decided that for five minutes no one was allowed to talk except me. I could do nothing but giggle for the entire five minutes, because I was embarrassed and didn’t know what to say.
Two months ago, as I perused my file box full of half-started stories in an attempt to determine what I would write for NaNoWriMo, I discovered a recurring theme among my main characters. For as long as I have been writing (which is pretty much as long as I’ve known my letters and what a story was), I have been writing about a girl/woman who can’t speak. Occasionally she was born deaf or some illness took away her voice, but most often, for some mysterious reason, she just can’t. I’m not sure exactly how many of these stories there are, but it is at least in double-digits, and in all but perhaps one or two, this inability to speak did not make her an outcast. In contrast, in most cases she has a small but tight group of friends who love her and, more importantly, understand her, even without speech. There is always some way for her to communicate, sometimes using sign language, or writing in a notebook, or through an interpreter who can hear her inner voice.
While that may work in stories, in real life things are not so easy. So the best I can hope for is to find those rare and wonderful people who will be patient when I’m quiet and be ready when I find the right words.