I like to explain myself. At length. I will talk forever if that's what it takes to be understood. I explain myself to grocery store cashiers and waiters and Uber drivers and strangers on Twitter. I explain myself to dogs.
I am unnerved by coded, stilted, incomplete conversations that end with words like "It is what it is." Even neutral shrugging without further explanation leaves me bewildered. I'm frustrated by texts. I wonder for far too long. "Do I detect a whiff of contempt in this winking emoji?" "Does this two-beer-mugs-clinking emoji mean 'Cheers!' or does it really mean 'OK enough already, end of conversation!'?"
This is a phenomenon that runs rampant among women. We work hard to understand each other, at all costs. Conversations don't feel complete for many of us until we've thoroughly mined every complex layer of meaning, explored every emotional undercurrent, analyzed every subtle subtext. What if someone doesn't have enough information? What if someone is confused?
I find that men don't seek understanding from others nearly as much. If you don't get it, it's up to you to catch up and figure it out. But when a woman takes that attitude, she's perceived as cold or bitchy. Girls are derided, at an early age, for displaying confidence and swagger. As a result, many of us over-explain ourselves—to justify, to contextualize, to apologize for seeming any way other than how we're meant to seem. Ask any confident professional woman (opens in new tab), and she'll probably tell you how she's been forced to adopt a more self-deprecating style of speech, along with all kinds of back-pedaling and self-justifying verbal tics: "I'm just trying to get us all on the same page, here" or "Tell me if I'm misreading this," and that old standby, "But whatever you prefer is fine."
By the time we've answered every imaginary objection in our minds, we've backtracked, contradicted, and fallen all over ourselves so many times that our real message winds up...nowhere.
Case in point: A few months ago, I asked my boss for a raise. Instead of just letting the amount I wanted hang in the air without apology, I added unnecessary parentheticals like "unless that sounds like too much." I added superfluous footnotes full of second-guessing and self-deprecation. And even as my boss grew quiet and all my unnecessary words piled up around us—leaving very little room for either of us to breathe, let alone talk—I found myself throwing even-less-good words after bad ones. The whole phone call started to feel like an extended out-of-body experience. And then I heard myself saying: "I just don't want my pay to be so high that someone will look at the amount I'm making a year from now and say, 'Jesus, why are we paying this idiot so much?'"
It was as if I'd asked my boss for less money.
At that moment, I questioned my lifelong commitment to over-explaining. Because, ironically, in struggling to be completely understood, I'd rendered myself less comprehensible.
By throwing out more and more words, I was digging myself into deeper and deeper holes. Instead of standing up for what I wanted, I was treating my listeners like a diary, thinking that would somehow excuse the audacity of me believing that I deserved more.
I think this tendency, for most women, springs from a generous place. We don't mind sacrificing time, energy, or even dignity to pave a smoother path for someone else. But somewhere along the way, we forget to pave a smoother path for ourselves. We forget how to stop and let our words hang in the air, without apology. We forget that we're not always responsible for other people's comfort, and that refusing to take responsibility for other people's comfort is actually a kind of power. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that we have a right to make statements and requests that don't end in question marks.
After my botched talk with my boss, I vowed to choose my words more carefully from that point forward. I vowed to resist the urge to say more. I would stand back and wait instead. I would let the silence speak volumes.
And am I frustrated all the time now? Do I feel insecure about the fact that no one understands me completely?
No. I feel fantastic. It turns out that sometimes when you shut up, people give you exactly what you want, whether it's information, reassurance, or free drinks. You hardly even have to ask! And other times, people start explaining themselves instead. You get a lot more useful information, and you feel a lot more relaxed. Now, I am the human embodiment of a two-beer-mugs-clinking emoji.
That sounds pretty simple, I know. But believe me, there are layers to that metaphor. There are footnotes and endnotes and parentheticals, forwards and introductions and diagrams and epilogues. For now, though, I think I've said enough.
Heather Havrilesky's new book, How to Be a Person in the World: Ask Polly's Guide Through the Paradoxes of Modern Life, will hit bookstores on July 12. Pre-order your copy here (opens in new tab).
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