thoughts on privilege: using less oxygen in the room

Many years ago, at one of our wmtc parties, I was chatting with a new guest, the spouse of a friend. We had never met before, and they didn't know anyone else at the party. Wanting to be a good host, I made it a point to spend some time with her, and asked about her work. She answered briefly and shyly; seeking to draw her out, I asked some clarifying questions.

Another guest was also present, and they jumped in, verbally rolling their eyes at my apparent ignorance, and answered the question not meant for them. 

I wanted to say, I know that. I wasn't asking for information, I was trying to start a conversation. But obviously I couldn't say that, so I said nothing while the third party answered the question meant for the newer, less talkative guest. Then I tried again with a more specific question that the third person couldn't answer.

More importantly, I made a mental note of this conversation: don't be that person, realizing that I have been, more than once.

Leaving space for others to speak

Several years later, during some union training, I was reminded of this exchange. One of our ground rules for group engagement was to leave space for others to speak

This was revelatory to me! A new thought about another way we can see -- and check -- our privilege. A step we can take towards being an ally of people with less privilege.

Since this was made visible to me, I've become increasingly sensitive to the dynamics of group conversations. I've been challenging myself to do better. 

I think of it as using less oxygen in the room.

A diversity of voices > the sound of our own voice

Using less oxygen in the room means leaving space for others to speak -- space for voices  that may not speak as often or answer as quickly. 

These voices may be quiet from a lifetime of receiving messages that their ideas are not important and not welcome -- and the resulting inexperience, which may have led to a lack of confidence. 

The voices may be quiet from a lifetime of frustration and futility in trying to compete with the dominant voices. 

Or folks may simply be reluctant to speak in front of others. Some of us gain a lot of speaking experience in our daily work -- but many people do not. For many people, raising a hand to speak in a group setting constitutes public speaking, and public speaking is many people's greatest fear.

Those of us who don't fall into any of those categories can use less oxygen in the room for folks who do.

Slamming the buzzer

My new awareness of this dynamic has led me to examine why I and others might use up so much oxygen -- why we might claim an inequitable share of verbal space. 

Why do so many people respond to questions as if they're hitting a buzzer in a game show? Why do people need to be the first person to respond? Why are we so keen to display our knowledge?

This dynamic is separate and distinct from mansplaining. In fact, taking up too much oxygen in the room may be a result of having been mansplained excessively in the past: a rush to display knowledge before anyone else can shut you down. 

It may be the result of a lifetime of being praised for their intelligence -- and only for that, so that our positive self-image is inextricably connected to how much we know.

It may be the result of hyper-competitiveness -- viewing every interaction as a contest to be won or lost.

It may be that we're passionate about the topic and just love to talk about it.

And of course, it may be any combination of the above, and very likely some motivations I haven't thought of here.

These days, when I find myself in a group dynamic, I am learning to ask myself: Do I need to answer this question? Do I need to speak? Am I contributing something unique or necessary? And I practice being comfortable keeping my knowledge to myself.  

An active silence

Using less oxygen in the room is something men can do when there are women present. 

It's something white people can do when there are people of colour present.

It's something settler people can do when there are Indigenous people present.

It's something more experienced people can do when there are younger or less experienced people present.

It's something anyone who in a group majority can do to help anyone in a group minority feel more comfortable speaking. 

It comes down to something both simple and challenging: checking your own ego.

It doesn't mean not speaking. It means not needing to speak your every thought. It means knowing the answer, but checking your impulse to answer it, waiting to see if someone else does.

You don't need to be the smartest person in the room.

You don't need to display your knowledge. 

You don't need to draw attention to yourself.

It's not a contest. 

Your silence -- your deference to others -- can be your contribution.


Amy said...

I know I've been guilty of this. Too many years of being the smart girl who had to shout over boys in school to get attention, too many years as a woman on a male-dominated faculty where I had to shout over my male colleagues to be heard. Now I see myself doing this even in all-women book groups, and I need to listen and be quiet to allow those who haven't been shouting over men their whole lives.

laura k said...

Amy, good for you for recognizing it. And for shouting over the boys and men in those days.

And... book groups? I thought you didn't do those. More information, please. :)

Amy said...

LOL! Well, ONE book group that I attended three times. Our community (which we have now moved from) had a book group. After they chose to read one of my novels, I decided that I should be supportive. So when they selected books I had read or wanted to read, I attended the meetings (once by zoom, twice in person). I found myself talking too much. Part of it also was my years as a teacher. It's hard not to respond to what someone else has said when for over 30 years my job was to facilitate discussion by responding to students in order to prompt that student or others to continue to the discussion. But mostly it is my inability to keep my mouth shut when I think I have something to say and years of having to be aggressive about it in order to be heard over the men.

Now that we've moved, I know one way to meet people is to join various groups---writing groups, book groups, local committees (e.g, I've already joined one group concerned with local environmental issues), and so on. Your post will stick in my head as I focus on listening more than talking.

laura k said...

That's nice to hear.

And same here: I find it difficult to not facilitate discussion and I always had to compete to be heard. I'm trying to be more aware of it, it's an ongoing healthy challenge.