I have always been a talker. Being the eldest of three daughters, it was impossible not to be; I was given the job as unofficial ‘child spokesperson’ from the day my sister was born. When family friends visited, it would be me that spoke for the rest of the group, eagerly filling them in on what we had been up to at the rate of one hundred miles an hour. My talkative nature extended to primary school, where I would regularly boss the other children into putting on shows with me in the playground. I would be the first to fling my hand up when the teacher asked for volunteers in class. I even had my stage debut as the main character in the Year 6 play, after a pretty inspiring audition as one of the witches from Macbeth. In short, I had the type of unbounded confidence that is often exhibited in only the very young. I was a lover of the spotlight, with one of the loudest voices in the room and an unlimited self-assurance that would make even Piers Morgan stop still in his tracks
Alas, growing up meant a gradual readjustment of my social behaviours. Secondary school taught me that being the loudest also leaves you vulnerable and open to public scrutiny. While I retained a certain level of confidence, I realised that I couldn’t really handle the heat, so had to get out of the kitchen. Slowly but surely, I became more selective about when I would speak and who I would engage in conversation with, and gradually began to lose the voice that I had so buoyantly utilised throughout my early youth. Crucially, I learnt that it was safer to keep my opinions to myself and follow the majority than to go against the grain.
Whilst we all understand that we are a product of our own social conditioning, we rarely stop to consider what effect this actually has on the development of our ideas and the paths that our lives take (I strongly contend that I would be a West End star right now if I had been given the right encouragement as a child). Jokes aside, the views that are instilled upon us through our childhood and adolescence obviously have a considerable impact on the people that we grow up to be. This has resulted in my current state; a chatterbox with a propensity to sit on the fence, a people-pleaser in a continued state of paranoia. Time and time again I choose to shrink into myself when debate arises, preferring to respond “I’m not sure” than to open myself up to criticism. But why is this? Surely it more than just a pursuit of an easy life?
A piece by journalist Sali Hughes recently struck a chord with me when I was considering this issue. The article was a discussion on the theatrical spectacle that is mediatised public debate, and how we are continuously being conditioned to expect binary opinions on everything from the war in Syria to Jeremy Corbyn. She says “adversarial debate is how we handle things now. Forget nuance and a hint of reservation, and don’t even think about changing your mind… in order to have integrity and conviction, your position must be entrenched, absolute and hostile.” Problems arise because, as Hughes acknowledges, humans are simply not wired in this way – we’re all bound to have reservations, questions and uncertainties. However, these larger debates can then influence our exchanges on a micro-level, making us doubt our convictions when we’re not entirely sure where we stand on an issue. With my Twitter feed full of well-considered standpoints written by people who have evidently done a lot more research than I have, it can sometimes be too intimidating to join in the conversation – especially when you don’t know entirely what you believe. I’ve often considered myself stupid when I feel I don’t know as much as the person sitting opposite me. The truth is that an open and honest dialogue is healthy, and there is so much to be learnt, even from people who don’t exhibit a similar viewpoint to you.
The media can lead you to believe that you simply must have a strong, unwavering opinion on an issue or you shouldn’t bother speaking. But what if you simply want to ask questions and broaden your knowledge without fear of judgment? Sometimes it can feel like the world we live in in 2018 doesn’t facilitate for this. For example, students were recently hit by a wave of strike action, and I know I won’t be the only one when I say I wasn’t too sure where I stood with the whole process. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting I don’t support the strikes- the truth is that I don’t really understand them. I don’t understand why four weeks were taken from my final semester in university, and I don’t understand what help I’m going to receive to compensate for the time that was lost. I have received an email from the university explaining their action plan, but I’m at a bit of a loss as to how much these are actually going to rectify the situation and make up for around ten hours of missed teaching time per module. However, I know that there are things that I can do to help myself, there are questions I can ask and there are answers I can push for. It can be all-too easy to lay back and assume that student voices won’t count for anything. The UCU and UUK reached an agreement last week, however, if this hadn’t have happened, the Student Union gave notice of a referendum which would have given everyone an opportunity to decide if they should support Cardiff University staff in their endeavours. I think opening the conversation and giving everyone the opportunity to vote was definitely a step in the right direction, but at the same time, I felt a little overwhelmed at the prospect of trying to come to a decision on such a complicated issue.
What I’m trying to say is that it can sometimes be a dent to our pride to say we’re not sure. It can be difficult to speak up when we don’t have a definite view on a topic, and it can be too intimidating to ask for clarification. But it is paramount that we use our voice.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that you should blindly charge gung ho into every debate you come across. However, if there is an issue you’re interested in learning more about, or a subject that is close to your heart, you should make an effort to contribute to the dialogue. Form your own opinions, but open your mind and be prepared to learn from the people around you. Don’t be overwhelmed by those you deem more knowledgeable, because, at the end of the day, we are all trying to navigate the world and form our beliefs along the way. Next time you’re in a discussion and feel unqualified to answer, ask for help, or if not, just give it a go. There is no harm in it, and you may find that you have more of a voice than you first thought.