The Big Mouth

I get in trouble a lot.  Mostly for my big mouth.   Really, I’m too old for raising my hand in a meeting and bringing up the objection, the thing the boss doesn’t want to hear.  I hear over and over again, “why can’t you just go along to get along?”  “No one likes the lightening rod.”  “You don’t always have to take responsibility for looking after other people, particularly when they won’t be looking after you.”

An example.  We had a project manager that was 6 foot plus some.  A hefty guy all the way around.  In conversations, he’d crowd people’s personal space – he was completely oblivious to people backing away from him.  I once saw him back a client – a diminutive woman of perhaps 5’2″ – into a wall, all while gesturing expansively.  So I saw him do this to one of my teammates, another small woman, on a day when the client wasn’t around.  So I pointed it out to him.  I made him look at the height differential between himself and my colleague, I measured the space between them and pointed out that social norms provided for about 18 inches of professional distance between colleagues and demonstrated that he’d more than halved that space.

For as long as the exchange was going on, everybody (including me) was uncomfortable.

Note: we’d also been talking about this very issue when he walked up to the conversation and interjected himself.

When it was over, the 4’11” colleague that he’d been towering over chastised me for rocking the boat.  But he was more aware after that and didn’t chase the client around the room anymore.

This is the stuff I get in trouble over.

Today, however, today I have new reason to be unapologetic.  It’s practice.

Over at The Daily Headache, this post on Distributed Responsibility.  Basically, when a crowd sees a terrible act going on, a single person is less likely to stand up and do something about it because no one person takes responsibility when there are a bunch of people around to disperse the sense of ownership.  Most of us believe that if we can just be quiet and escape notice that we’ll be okay.

Which history more or less backs up.  Political dissidents get disappeared.  There are plenty of good reasons to keep your head down and your blinders on.  It’s good for survival.  It’s human nature.

So I’m alright with having these small opportunities to practice getting uncomfortable.  Here’s hoping that, if I’m ever in a situation where it really matters, I’ll have the chutzpah to speak up.

The Big Mouth

4 thoughts on “The Big Mouth

  1. You make a good point. I think speaking up does take practice. Being comfortable with discomfort takes practice.

    I think perhaps the typical behavior of crowds may be more about our innate tendency to be social and mirror one another’s behavior. When an unexpected situation arises, we automatically look to each other to see what to do. If everyone is doing that–look around for a cue or a message from God–then that is all we do. We are sit around and do nothing. As soon as one person acts, then we are much more likely to do the same thing. I think it’s more about the inertia of uncertainty.

    Of course, there are people who make a habit of being invisible in a crisis, who just go along to get along. I don’t generally tell people things they won’t want to hear, because they don’t learn from what I have to say anyway, but I am not a fan of the first approach either.


  2. I absolutely agree… too often we run around telling people the “truth” dressed up in our own opinions. I’ve had lots of “truths” lobbed at me and they don’t stick. These days, I mostly keep myself to myself and then rant about it here later, but there are some occasions where the consequences reach past my personal annoyance.

    With the guy who didn’t recognize or respect other people’s bubble, I could defend myself just fine (and got the nickname of “bubbles” because I’d bark at him every time he invaded my personal space. I’ve got my own reasons for finding it distressing when my space is invaded. It took me a long time to get past being a “good girl,” so being able to defend my boundaries is kind of a victory.) The trouble was that he didn’t extend my discomfort to consider what his space-invasion might mean to other people. It was making the client uncomfortable and was bad for business all the way around.

    So I spoke up and got him a book on body language. “No one has ever given me this feedback before, it’s very interesting,” he said. And thereafter he started asking permission before setting his bottom on my desk. Not much of a victory, but something.


  3. Probably. It’s a philosophical dilemma for me, though. I’m coming from a very specific place with this, so bear in mind that there is a context here… Standing between someone and their consequences isn’t love. Protecting someone from the outcomes of their choices isn’t love. It’s thievery of the worst kind, because you’re robbing them of the opportunity to learn. Sometimes, the best love you can give someone else is to assert your boundaries and say no. Walk away if you have to. Anything but breaking their fall. When you get between someone and their small consequences (you didn’t help with the laundry, now you don’t have clean drawers) you’re setting them up for bigger consequences later on.

    So on one hand, I think it is probably human nature to assume that we could do better with someone else’s situation if we could be in charge of answering their dilemmas. It’s also a patently false assumption and a harmful, hurtful one to make. Therefore, we should mostly keep our mouths shut and leave people to their reasons and doing the best they can with what they’ve got. On the other hand, sometimes love is bringing someone’s attention to something that they clearly were oblivious about. (I use love, not in the romantic sense, but more in the philadelphia, general compassion, acting for common good sense of the word.)

    I don’t know. But if practice at being socially uncomfortable means being better able to speak up in a crowd for someone who can’t speak for themselves… Maybe I’m okay with stepping outside of my philosophy every once in a while.


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