“If there’s any kind of magic in this world, it must be in the attempt of understanding someone, sharing something.” – said the character in the 1995 film “Before Sunrise”. It is, indeed, astonishing how much a word can do: from hurting to healing someone, from demotivating to saving someone. We often underestimate the power of words.
Talking is an essential part of our everyday communication with others. However, we often forget how powerful our words or their absence can be. In fact, communication is more complicated than just exchanging utterances: the non-verbal and interpersonal forms of communication such as frowning, smiling, tone of voice or emotions also transmit or intensify a message. Just as silence does. Actually, being silent can also be an active form of communication. Here’s the problem with it: in many cases, silence is deemed as an approval or consensus which can have some undesirable consequences.
What is wrong with staying silent?
From one point of view, not speaking your mind may lead to suppressing emotions, which in itself can have a negative impact on your mental and physical health. This could result in nightmares, anxiety, low self-esteem or even depression. Suppressing emotions can even change the way we think.
In addition, staying silent can have consequences on society as a whole. The simple and, unfortunately, familiar example of this would be the classic case of bullying where no one stands up to the bullies to tell them to stop. Here, silence equals compliance. A more complex case is the establishment of “a spiral of silence” in society. These two problems are more connected than one may think:
Spiral of silence is a theory by German political scientist Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann, who believed that “a social group or society might isolate or exclude members due to the members’ opinions”. Since we are all communicative beings, we do not want to feel excluded or isolated. So, instead of speaking our mind, we tend to remain silent out of the fear that what we say may be of unpopular opinion. As a result, society will suppose that the opinion of those who do speak up, represents the viewpoint of the whole society.
In a school, which is a micro-society, a spiral of silence may cause pupils who are against bullying to remain silent. Of course, the problem of bullying in schools is way more complex, but some support and words of encouragement could help a victim of bullying a lot.
We were taught this way
The problem is that people are often afraid to speak up, as we were never taught how to do it or why it matters. On the contrary, instead of teaching young people the basis of rhetorics and the importance of acknowledgement, as well as expressing one’s emotions and opinions, we are often taught that remaining silent is the best way to stay out of trouble.
Back when I was a young student, I used to speak up when I did not like something or found something unfair. During graduation, when my teacher was saying something positive about every student, I was told that I “could never keep it quiet and keep opinions to myself”. This left me thinking about whether speaking up was a positive or negative trait.
Often, children are taught from early on that being forthright is wrong and rude. In the school hierarchy, one should better keep an opinion to oneself, otherwise, there can be some trouble. It may be dangerous to confront teachers because they have a certain power, like giving you bad grades or telling parents you misbehave. Some teachers might even feel like they can take advantage of this power disbalance.
This leaves children frustrated, lost and lacking in understanding what they did to deserve this and where they can get some help. The outcomes of this frustration most likely stay with these children throughout their adult life.
What are the consequences?
Children who are afraid to confront authority, afraid to tell bullies they are wrong, or to not express their emotions when they don’t like something, can tend to transmit this behavior into their adult life. And as adults, they may not be able to stand up for themselves, or for others . They avoid talking about politics and problems because it is “rude”. They may not speak up when they see a form of harassment, such as racism, sexism, or homophobia, because it is simply not their problem. Not because they are bad people, but because they were taught this way.
However, in such cases, staying silent and not supporting the victim may indeed imply a deemed approval. Such approval is not only harmful to a victim who may face psychological problems and even physical abuse. It can also create an established stigma about various topics in the whole society.
So why speak up?
Speak up to protect yourself and others, speak up not to regret remaining silent. Speak your mind instead of suppressing your emotions. Speak up because others may not know what you know, so use it as a possibility to educate yourself and broaden your horizons. Stand up for someone to show you care, demonstrate your support, and help those in need. Speak up on topics that could change and lead to something positive, whether it be at your workplace, with family, friends, or even just a stranger.
How can I speak up?
Of course, there are some common sense rules to speaking your mind.
- First of all, do not mistake speaking up with being a rude person who just gives everyone insulting comments when nobody asks for them. A baseline is, there should be no hate speech.
- In the best-case scenario, there should be no aggression when speaking up. Of course, it does not always work because some topics are way too painful to remain calm with. But when possible, it is best to stay grounded, argumentative and well-reasoned as well as to be open for a dialogue.
- Do not be afraid when confronting people: most likely, you are not the only one who thinks this way. When trying to stay well-mannered and diplomatic, do not worry that if you do speak your mind, it could be perceived as rude or nosy. Besides, being ‘rude or nosy’ is not nearly as bad as being a harasser who affects someone’s life.
- Today it is easy to give your opinion on a matter with the help of social media, and you can do it in many ways. You can show your support of something more passively through re-posting or liking a post – this will help to spread an opinion, or you can get active and use your social media channels as a platform for talking on diverse topics, turning it into the vox populi.
- Most importantly, remember that words are a double-edged sword: they can help someone but also hurt a person deeply. Words are real. They have power and can influence many things, and we should bear this fact in mind.
Speaking your mind and confronting people does not automatically mean that you are aggressive, negative, and just want to fight. On the contrary, sometimes it means being empathetic, honest, and caring about problems around you. Saying your opinion out loud may help someone a lot. So use this power, but do not exploit it.