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How I Learned and Unlearned Silence

I have a terrible poker face.

Recently, my husband, seven-year-old son, and I started playing poker as a post-dinner family activity. I’ve had so much fun learning the game, but I almost always come in dead last.

I’m quite certain it’s because my cards are written all over my face. I’ve always had a hard time silencing my facial expressions.

Looking back at my childhood, even if I could pretend with my words (“I was studying at the library, mum, not goofing off at my friend’s house—I promise!”), my face was the giveaway. The same is true today, whether my cards are great or I’m bluffing.


My telling facial expressions were part of the conversation when I had the honor of interviewing Elaine Lin Hering, my friend and best-selling author of Unlearning Silence, at Town Hall Seattle a couple of weeks ago. She noticed my (apparently) deeply expressive facial expressions, which communicated so much even when I didn’t say a word out loud.


It made sense for her to notice all the words I said with my face, even when my voice was silent.

For those of us who have been conditioned to be silent and whose voices have often been suppressed, we find other ways to communicate (intentionally or unconsciously). For me, it's through my facial expressions, which, as Elaine told me, communicate loudly.


It was a huge aha moment. Perhaps learning to express myself through my face was the beginning of finding my voice. First, with my face while I learned to speak up with words. I wasn’t always told my voice was welcome and even until today, am keenly aware when people around me prefer me to remain silent on issues like equity, justice and racism. In western leadership advice, we're told to focus on communication with words. But in so many parts of the world, we learn to speak up first with our bodies.


As I reflected on finding my voice slowly and carefully–pushing way past all the years I've been told silence is expected from someone like me–I couldn’t help but wonder–how did I learn silence in the first place?

Learning silence


Elaine read a section of her book that mesmerized me. It was her definition of silence.


“Silence is, by definition, an absence. Absence of voice, absence of opinion, absence of life.”


Mic. Drop.


There’s more to it, and you can hear her read it in full (and watch our entire discussion) here.


Silence does leave a hole, not just where sound should be, but where we should be.


Growing up in Singapore, I was conditioned to believe that silence is the way that you behave, that it’s how you “should” move in the world, particularly as a “good” Indian woman. I was told that the best version of me required an absence of voice, opinion, and now that Elaine said absence of a life defined by me. It's taken me decades to unlearn this.

Silence is so ingrained in some of us that it’s practically in the water we drink. Elaine’s definition of silence goes on to highlight, “Silence is also having to hold your tongue to keep the peace, to choose your words to incur only the amount of backlash you can currently bear, to play the role you're given, rather than the one you want. Silence is when you're not invited or allowed into the conversation because there's no room, no welcome, or you're not deemed worthy.”


Our learned behavior, combined with bias that silences historically marginalized people, creates a cycle that can be hard to break to unlearn it. In article after article about “how to speak up,” we’re told to be more courageous, to put ourselves out there and just speak up! But that solution only deals with half the problem. Speaking up more often is all well and good, but only works if people are actually willing to hear you.


Yes, we can unlearn silence. But in order for things to really get better, we also have to make it safe for people to speak up. And, as Elaine tells us, we need to stop silencing one another.

How we silence each other


If you’re feeling a little defensive about that last sentence, I’ve got a hard truth for you: all of us have silenced other people. And part of unlearning silence is to learn to stop silencing others too.


In our discussion, Elaine explained that it’s human nature to assume that others are like us. In psychology, it’s called the False Consensus Effect, a kind of bias that leads us to believe that our opinions, beliefs, and behaviors are more widely shared than is actually the case — that means we are more likely to be dismissive of anyone that falls outside our own worldview.


Unlearning silence means that we have to own that we are silenced and that we silence others. We incline other people towards silence, expecting them or requiring them to look and sound like us in order to be heard. We can end up, as Elaine says, in “siloed worlds of our own where there’s no cross-pollination, no real connection.” It’s easy to see this in action; just take a look at your own social media echo chamber. In unlearning silence, we have an opportunity that each of us can take on, to make space for others to be heard, even if we look, sound, or see each other differently. We have to actively, consciously, inclusively hear others out, even if we're worried we'll be uncomfortable.

Creating community to speak up


When I asked Elaine to share what she’d learned on her own journey to unlearn silence, her answer was simple, but powerful:


“The risk is worth it.”


The ideas she shares so (seemingly) easily now were originally cloaked in self-doubt.


Elaine shared that it took her a lot of back and forth to first begin sharing her ideas on LinkedIn. And that can be a really anxiety-producing thing. What will your employer or your colleagues think? What if people judge you? It’s so public! So often, we let those anxious thoughts run the show when we’re considering speaking out. It’s a mind trap that’s easy to fall into. Elaine advises, “We focus so much on the cost and the discomfort, that we don't have an accurate calculation on the potential benefit.”


Silence is lonely, but when Elaine used her voice online, she was anything but. She received affirmations from total strangers. People (and publishers) were interested in what she had to say. When she stopped trying to be someone else or live up to another person’s expectations, that is when big things started happening. Her voice was a catalyst for community, an alternative to a culture of silence.


As I read Elaine’s book and was doing my own risk-benefit analysis of speaking up, it was this benefit that stood out the most to me.


When we use our voices, those who need you will find you. And you will, in turn, find those you need.



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