Silence is censure, except when it isn’t

I’ve written before about how withholding a “no” can be an expression of power, a refusal to hand someone a gift that you have the power to give.

But there are broader issues here, power issues surrounding the withholding of any speech. I don’t mean the failure of speech; I mean the deliberate withholding of speech. Sometimes, to be silent is to push the other person into a submissive role. (The acceptance of that role is usually signalled by nervous, approval-seeking blabbering.) Sometimes silence is censure, a message that you are not even worthy of a negative response.

It’s easy to think that others are ignoring us because we’re doing something they disapprove of. And then it’s tempting to amend our behaviour so that we’ll pass the test and get attention again. Because we’re humans, we’re social beings, and we want attention and approval. But sometimes… sometimes silence is just silence.

I recently forgot myself at a meeting. The topic was flyaway plastics and the best way of dealing with them through the waste management process. I started singing a song, made up on the spot, where “Flyaway plastics” went to the tune of “Waterloo Sunset”. I thought perhaps people would smile or join in. (This was a stupid assumption; the world of sustainable waste management doesn’t select people for their sense of humour or love of a sing-song.) But they all ignored me completely – frostily and disapprovingly, as I imagined, suddenly burning with shame.

Then I realised: they’re not ignoring me because they disapprove of my singing, or because the made-up lyrics aren’t funny, or because this is an inappropriate thing to do. They are probably ignoring me because they’re just not interested. I can read the lack of interest as disapproval and moderate my behaviour so it’s even less interesting, and be ignored further, and get into a loop which ends in me not wanting to leave the house… or I could not.

I choose not. My choice is that people who disapprove of what I do will at least have to make the effort to tell me so before they get to change my behaviour. I get enough actively-voiced daily disapproval without doing the work of second-guessing the people who say nothing. I am simply not going to hand any silent person that much power. Because, in case you hadn’t guessed already, I’m all about the speech.

tl;dr: person sings, is not sorry.

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