Last year I picked up a smallish blue book from a pile on a table in Powells Bookshop in Chicago. Its title was Men Explain Things to Me by writer, historian and activist Rebecca Solnit. The cover jumped out at me from the table filled with books piled two and three high, their covers a pool of images, patterns and font styles swimming together. The cover of white font on a blue background was loud in its simplicity, and surprisingly quiet in its need for a fan fare of attention.
Attention I happily gave it.
Intrigued I picked it up, scanned through its first few pages and then read its back cover. After handing the book over the counter to be scanned and money exchanged, I slid it into my bag for later reading. And by later I mean 15 minutes later. I started reading Men Explain Things to Me in the car on the way home. Flicking the pages I nodded as I felt myself slipping into Rebecca’s world and smiled as I saw moments in her story related in ways to some of my own.
Page after page, essay after essay, I devoured it in hours. I read the first few essays in the car, interrupted only by my husband asking me to read a section after I’d commented to myself, ‘Oh, that is so true.’ So engrossed I had forgotten that he was also interested in the books contents. I shared the passage and we discussed it. Both agreeing and disagreeing with how people not only see things, but experience them differently.
I continued reading it surrounded by quiet on the couch after dinner and finished it as I lay in bed later that night.
In short, I loved it.
I loved the prose and the science. And importantly I felt in some ways I too had lived the books central premise, Men Explain Things to Me. In formal meetings and informal conversations, I had been that female sitting there nodding, being interrupted, feeling frustrated and often lost at not understanding when and how I could use my voice. It took me years out of graduate school to really start to find my voice and when I did, I then made a very conscious decision as to when I would really use it, with whom and why.
A person’s voice is precious, unique and not everyone is deserving of its power.
A person’s voice is constantly evolving and needing of time and support to be crafted and shared.
A person’s voice needs quietness around it for its integrity to be truly considered.
Lying there in the dark that night, her little blue book resting on my bed side table, I closed my eyes and promised myself that I would read it again. But on a second reading I’d take more time to really consider it.
It was a few weeks before I came back to it and it was no longer on my bedside table. I had moved the book to the desk in my home study. I’d placed it next to my iMac in readiness for the day I’d read it again, and as a daily reminder that one day I would.
When I did pick it up it was after a very busy period of work and transition. A period that had me interacting daily with a number of consultants, clients of various ages and flying to and from workshops across the country. Sitting in the airport departure lounges in Atlanta, Washington DC and Chicago, quietly observing those around me I reflected on my learning these past few months.
Learning from the work undertaken, how my colleagues and I interacted and quietly observing the people in the everyday around me — at the airport, on the train and at the many restaurants. Landing in Chicago I felt a need to revisit Rebecca’s writing and perhaps to consider it a little differently.
This time I refrained from devouring it. I instead hovered over every sentence and ever paragraph. I found quiet moments in which I could really consider how Rebecca weaved story and science and how essay after essay flowed in a seamless stream of consciousness. Her writing, her wit and her insight it was clear I admired. Some of her assertions about the differences between how ‘some’ men and ‘some’ women — and it is some, not all — communicate, share and interact with each other I also agreed with. Some I also disagreed.
On my second reading of her words, however, I did something differently.
This time I found myself replacing the word men with the word people.
This time I mentally changed the title to People Explain Things to Me.
As I flicked through the pages and read her essays a second time, I found myself thinking of examples in my own life, and from observing the interaction of others going on around me wherein one person — male and female — eagerly step into the role of explaining things to people. Be it on Facebook, Twitter, in a coffee shop, on the train or over the dinner table.
There are many people who find meaning and purpose in explaining things that do not necessarily need to be explained. And many companies who make money off repeating it, live tweeting it and calling it news.
I began to consider if we can actually group this practice of ‘explaining to’ as purely a male to female practice. In addition to men, I also know of strong, dominant and vocal women who also explain things to people. Both to men and to women. Albeit that is from living in a society where many of our models of communication have long been founded in the practice of masculine models of working and learning in our halls of academe.
I wanted instead to consider this as a practice of people.
A practice wherein one person lectures, stands up on stage as expert, somewhat oblivious to the experience, knowledge and ideas of those around them, and holds the room. If in a small group setting this person always dominates the conversation, and instinctively interrupts people in order to regain the stage where they are most at home. And when a person nods their head in agreement or replies, “Yes, I understand,” their voice is seen as an affirmation of all that is being explained to them. Not stopping to breathe nor to listen to the quiet voices with invisible hands being raised around them, people who explain things to people simply move on.
Consider your own interactions with family and friends, or work colleagues?
Who often sits quietly listening, their own silence not heard?
Who bounces around the room, explaining their opinions and experiences with everyone — tweeting it, posting it, never taking a breath?
And who rarely considers the ways of others especially those more quiet than themselves, as just different?
And who does?
Take a quiet moment and consider if everyone is explaining to everyone, creating a melting pot of noise.
Take a quiet moment and consider, are you?
As I considered this notion deeply for myself as well as in observing those around me I wondered if in our modern society we have a crisis in the practice of considered quietness.
A crisis of its absence in the ways we work, learn and live.
A crisis in valuing the time it takes to deeply consider, to contemplate and to learn, as well as to appreciate the white space.
A crisis where every moment is filled with people explaining something to you, sharing something with you, where every piece of communication sent to you is not truly for you or about you, where our communication is conditioned not by our mindfulness of the thinking of others, but by our selfish need for an audience. And an audience now.
An audience whose speed of attention and social affirmation we have become addicted to in our own selfish search for meaning, and to matter. And if we click off, walk away or close the door we fear … we might miss out.
A crisis where we, people, have forgotten the value of considered quietness as a very mindful and active way to participate in the world.
“SShhhhhhhhh. I’m thinking.”