How Not To Talk: A Reduction

Hello, old friends! I have something to say:

The other night at a bar in Alphabet City, I spoke with a dear one about the qualities of a ‘true friend.’ The person in question endured a number of tragedies in her childhood, and is forever having to negotiate how to talk about these tragedies with loved ones. Accordingly, my friend calls a true friend someone who is willing to engage with this dark material. I paraphrase pal: “The worst thing is when I say something personal, and then the person I’m talking to says …nothing. Nothing is rarely the right thing to say.”

I got to thinking about this. Weren’t you also taught that the flip side of ‘good listening’ is ‘saying nothing?’ Sometimes people just need to speak, right? Speaking a secret without interruption, at leisure, to someone who’s willing to lend their full attention – is that not the path of the righteous conversationalist? Shut your stupid mouth every so often, because you don’t know everything? And this practice would account for most of the therapeutic community; the first image I conjure when I think of anyone ‘getting help’ is some poor sap reclined on a chaise lounge, a shrink with clicky pen and pressed lips nodding through a monologue.


This week in America, an(other) unarmed black teenager was shot dead by a law enforcement agent. Many of my acquaintances on social media are properly incensed. The op-eds and essays and rants are out in their Thursday finest. And as with the case of Trayvon Martin, I’m having a palpable reaction to Mike Brown‘s death – a reaction I can’t intellectually metabolize, because it’s mostly emotional. I am furious in a way that feels attached to my race, which is, of course, shaky moral high ground in America. I read these articles and all I can think is, Mike Brown could have been a member of my family, or I should say: a member of my family could have died the way Mike Brown did. Mike Brown makes me feel sad for black people. He makes me feel so sad for my family.

Though I have little to add to the politically-minded op-ed dialogue that hasn’t already been articulated better, I have tried to express my sadness, my anger, to those closest to me – you know, just as it comes up. Most of these people are white: my best friend, my boyfriend, my co-workers and colleagues. I never think about the racial make-up of my social sphere…until something like this happens. And here is exactly when I think of it: I’ll attempt to put into words some piece of this huge rage inside of me. My nearest and dearest will listen, attentively and sadly, but then they will effectively say… nothing.

I am not interested in making this a particular case for cross-racial dialogue (for that post was already very smartly written by Ali Barthwell, over at xoJane). My friends are intelligent, and kind; full of empathy and warmth, they’re the very truest of the true friends. But I am here to interrogate silence in general, as a response in dark times – just as my bestie interrogates silence when people listen to her talk about the death in her life. I think it’s often our impulse to keep hush hush for fear of “speaking out of our depth,” or “putting a foot in one’s mouth.” I have white friends who are tentative to weigh in on racially-charged issues because they feel there’s nothing appropriate to say but “I’m sorry.” But what if there isn’t an “appropriate thing to say,” in painful conversations? What if there’s never a right thing to say about death, or race-related murder? Is anyone really meant to just sit, squirming, until the other person’s cathartic rant is over? This cannot be the way of change.

Not to disparage catharsis. I’ll go to war for the monologue, the wide-eyed rant (obviously) – and I do think it’s true that sometimes people just want to yell into the wind and feel cold after the fact. But I wanna yell into the wind, I come to the internet – I don’t talk to my friends. When I speak to my friends, it’s because I want to hear what they think. I want them to get mad with me, or draw some comparison, or ask some question, or even point out some logical flaw. I have friends and people I love because I expect to be in dialogue with them. I went to a therapist when I wanted to merely hear my own dark thoughts said aloud in space.

What we have in the way of a support group these days is the internet, and I applaud the people who are currently goofing off at their day jobs to lend solidarity, or ask questions, or work to articulate an opinion on Facebook. We all have opinions. All of these opinions are as flawed as the minds that made them – some of them are stupid, or tasteless, or reductive, or perhaps “not researched enough.” But the only way our opinions take shape and change and spur action is when they are questioned, or criticized, or injected with detailed information; when they are disucssed. It isn’t sufficient to duck out of a conversation about race because one isn’t black, and one is therefore afraid to step on somebody’s toes. (Never mind the fact that everyone should be concerned with our crooked justice system…but we’ll talk about this some other time). Neither is it sufficient to sit blankly with a buddy after being gifted Marty McFly-grade “heavy” information. Silence isn’t polite, it’s merely easy. It’s inaction.

For set dressing, here are a few some times I was silent, and shouldn’t have been: in a dozen high school math and chemistry classes, when I was so incredibly lost in the material I was ashamed to speak up. In various agitated political conversations, during which I cowered because I hadn’t recently been reading the newspaper. I wonder now, why didn’t I ask questions? Answer: I was afraid of looking stupid — my third least favorite feeling. I’ve also been silent in several crucial moments with several crucial friends, after being told secrets, sadnesses: things I can see now merited a response far greater than, “Platitude.” In relationships that weren’t working out, which I sat through for longer than I ought’ve because I worried about hurting someone else, worried that by naming the problem I would give it killing power. Silence in all of those moments was pure, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named grade suspicion. I think now that I have only ever been quiet out of fear.

I can’t think of what would have been the perfect words, in any of those coulda-been-conversations. I don’t know what I hope the well-meaning non-black friends will say when we really talk about Mike Brown. And I don’t know how to respond when a depressed friend describes her worst days. I certainly can’t construe my input, or theirs, as valuable – but I sure as hell know what’s not.

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