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 speakSeveral 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.