Last week my daughter enjoyed an online dance class. It was great and she’s a confident kid so got on with it with much enthusiasm as I drank coffee in the background. At the end of the class though it was question time.
My daughter was the only English girl in the class with all the other kids and tutor being American, so she was keen to tell them she’d joined in all the way from England. She raised her hand and waited patiently as the other children asked their questions and shared their thoughts without being called on, often interrupting one another. The tutor managed this all patiently and everyone got their chance to speak, except for my daughter. When the class ended, she sat for a moment. Silent. I could feel it coming and then she turned to me and there it was - her face stained with tears and then that little wail perfectly pitched to make your heart break.
She ran into my arms sobbing as I told her I knew how she felt.
“I used to hold my hand up and get ignored too. Whilst other kids didn’t and got to speak,” I told her.
“Mummy, that doesn’t help!” she cried. She was right. It never really helps when you’re sad, to hear you’re not the only one. Actually, it’s a bit sadistic if knowing another person has felt that hurt is actually a comfort to you. As I stroked her hair and let her cry I wondered if I’d made a mistake. After all, I’d been the one to teach her to wait her turn. Reinforced by her teachers, my girl has been taught excellent manners. I’m a stickler for manners, me.
Yet, I’m also trying to raise a girl who knows no limitations. Who is not raised to believe she should be sweet, demure and pleasing because she is a girl. I’m trying to ensure, not just in the way I raise her but also in what I write and the organisations I support, that she has the same opportunities and rights as any man. That she’s not tamed into taking a backseat or afraid to speak up when she sees injustice. Had I just witnessed her doing just this? Waiting her turn, letting it pass by and then feeling small and unseen? I, myself, am great one-to-one. I absolutely love socialising with just one or two people. I love the energy of discussions and connecting with another person. Put me in a group though and I’m crap. Really crap at getting involved. Sometimes, I’ll realise I’ve gone 20 minutes without speaking and I worry everyone is going to think I’m an absolute idiot. I suspect they just assume me shy, but the truth is it’s my manners. I just can’t talk over people and so too often the moment passes me by and the conversation has glided over what I had to contribute. I’ve stood in circles of colleagues at after-work drinks as bolshy blokes tried to outdo each other with their skiing stories. I listened to someone I knew had never so much as seen more than 2 inches of snow, share wild tales of a trip I was 100% sure was never taken.
I’m a quiet person by nature. Ok, so I get pretty animated when discussing passions or after a couple of glasses of wine. Still, I’m small in stature and the natural volume of my voice is small too. So even if I want to talk over someone, it’s pretty difficult. Maybe it’s why I write. It’s easier for me to get my voice heard.
Trouble is, it didn’t really help when a former colleague of mine took credit for my ideas. Or when I was negotiating my salary, way back before I was self-employed. Self-employment is a fast track way of learning to speak up for yourself. You do it or you go under. Plus, how are prospective clients supposed to believe in you if you’re so polite it comes across as you not believing in yourself?
I’d love to live in a world where quiet people get heard. Often, I wonder if they have more of value to say since they’ve spent more time listening. Unfortunately, the world doesn’t generally pause and turn to the quiet ones to ask their thoughts. Everything nowadays moves too fast for this to be possible.
So, I suppose my daughter has reached the age where I now have to teach her to balance her manners with calling out injustice. Maybe, if I’d have done this before, she'd have been able to say to the teacher, after poised with her hand in the air, that she had been waiting for her turn for five minutes. Perhaps if she’d have done so then the tutor wouldn’t ignore the child with their hand raised the next time.
I’ll always believe in manners. If we all jumped queues and interrupted each other then it would be chaos. If we’re all loud then no one will be listening. No one would really ever be heard and if we don’t listen to each other and consider opinions and mull over each other’s stories then we’re at a standstill. There’s no progression or learning without proper communication.
Still, there are times when manners must be damned. Once the polite avenues have been exhausted I, and my daughter, will have to learn to speak up.
In the end, I suppose, if you’ve attempted to be heard in a respectful manner and been ignored then raising your voice is no longer rude, it’s damn survival. And, among the many many pieces of advice I’m trying to arm my daughter with so that she might go out into the world at some point able to thrive, then survival is a pretty key lesson.
Additional note - I’m going to have to teach my girl this and I’d love to hear any ideas for how to explain this balance to her (she’s 7 years old). Please comment if you’ve got any ideas or resources that may help me.