“Though”— Perceptions of Powerlessness in Speaking and Writing

It’s getting towards the end of my last semester of college which means that I’m doing a whole lot of revision. I work on stories all year, but with portfolios on the horizon the process takes over most of my time.

One of the things I’ve tried to pay attention to as I revise are the unintentional repetitions that I leave in my paragraphs and stanzas. I’ve talked to some writers who have trouble over-using dashes or adverbs. I’ve talked to others who find all of their characters shrugging, glancing, and raising their eyebrows to punctuate every piece of dialogue.

In my own work, I tend to have a lot of “though”s.

I find it creeping into my sentences all the time, whether I’m writing or just speaking with people. It’s different than “although” or “however” which seem to transition to a new thought. “Though” just seems to be added on as a sentence softener in most cases.

 

“I hated that movie.”

“Yeah. I thought the fight scene was cool, though.”

 

I use it as a form of hedging. I can’t just assert a contradictory opinion, because I need to soften it first, to agree and then twist the agreement into what I mean. There has been a lot written about cultural gender norms and societal pressure on women to be agreeable and non-confrontational, so I’ll try not to just repeat it all here. With that said, I do think it’s important to acknowledge in myself as a woman and especially as a writer.

But it’s not just a woman thing. At its heart, I think using words to soften messages is just something that happens when people become used to not being listened to. I know that I start sprinkling my conversations with rapidly increasing instances of “you know?” when that’s the only way I feel like I can get my conversational partner to respond. When you’re met with silence at the end of all your ideas, you start to backtrack to make your ideas more agreeable just in case you might be able to invite some feedback.

This can happen to women, adolescents, employees, or anyone who feels like speaking their mind comes with a social risk that must be constantly mitigated. The consequence is that once all your ideas are softened, even if they are fantastic, they won’t come across with the power they once had. And when compared to the words of someone who is accustomed to being listened to, whose ideas are all expressed with fearless confidence, yours will sound weak and possibly inferior.

A lot of people have heard Taylor Mali’s “Totally, like whatever, you know?” which makes fun of all this hedging creeping into the language of a generation. It was one of the first spoken word poems I ever heard, and it is pretty funny. After learning a bit about the power dynamics at play with language use, it starts to become more troublesome to think about, though.

He’s hearing all these kids hedging all their phrases and filling conversations and essays with phrases lacking any substance, but the reason could be just a powerlessness felt in the relationship between student and teacher, or just as a part of that age group, or that role in society.

As someone who has assigned and graded papers and written many more, I’ve found the more structured the essay, the higher the fluff ratio will be for most students. If they aren’t trusted to have control over their writing, why take the risk to assert their true opinions? I remember my high school essays rarely required me to voice any opinion, and I was used to receiving As. It would have been riskier for me to have written something substantial in most cases.

Sometimes people say nothing to avoid the consequences of saying something.

If a young person has enough conversations like this:

 

“What are your views on this?”

“That’s awful. I never realized that was happening.”

“Seriously? How have you never heard about that?”

“I don’t know.”

“The issue is complex. You can’t just call it all awful.”

“Sorry.”

 

Their conversations will start to look more like this:

 

“What are your views on this?”

“I’m not sure… It seems bad though, but I mean, it seems really difficult to really address, you know?”

 

I think a lot of people have fear build up in them anytime they need to give an honest opinion on something. People are scared of not knowing things, of being criticized for their words, or of just being ignored entirely. The lack of positive feedback can be destructive to our use of language, and this becomes especially scary for writers.

I appreciate a point Stephen King made about confidence in his book On Writing. There is a lot to be said for trusting your thoughts and your words as a writer, but I truly think that King articulated it in one of the most concise ways I’ve seen with the sentence on page 127,

“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.”

This fear could result in an overuse of passive tense, abstractions, or just general vagueness, which are all issues young writers seem to have consistent trouble with. Even on a larger scale, though, this fear can make the necessary parts of writing seem impossibly difficult.

The first stage of writing is just being able to trust our thoughts and words enough to put them on the page. If a writer is too paralyzed their book will cease to be before it’s ever written. Writer’s Crippling Self Doubt can be caused through a bad case of low confidence.

Then the writer needs to revise, which requires at least having enough faith in one’s ideas to not break at the first hint of criticism and suggestion.  We need to know the changes we make will improve the work. Writers need courage to not delete the intimate or weird parts that are working well, even if showing people is terrifying.

After that there’s the issue of submitting things for publication. The overwhelming majority of submissions are rejected without any feedback, and writers need to have a level of callous on their ego before they can deal with it.

Reading work in front of a live audience can be difficult too, especially if you’re waiting for people to criticize your words. I know that when I do accidentally speed up reading, it’s because I’ve gotten to a section of a poem or story that I’m not sure my audience will react well to. I have an uncontrollable desire to just blur over the words by increasing my pace like a vocal eraser.

 

I believe one of the ways we can improve the conversations and the written works of young people is to encourage them with feedback whenever possible.

This doesn’t always need to be overwhelmingly positive feedback, but we should make an effort to say something. One of the biggest things that’s helped me improve as a writer is by going through the critiquing process and hearing both positive and negative feedback on my work.

Whether it’s critical or complimentary, giving feedback to a writer says:
I’m listening. Your ideas are valid and worth expressing. Here is my reaction to what you have to say.
And for the author, this can translate to:
This piece is worth working on. Keep writing. 

This doesn’t only take place in critiques. Discussion based classes are especially important because they demonstrate that every voice can contribute something to the conversation. Perhaps even more importantly, these classes encourage questions. I absolutely love the courses that come alive with questions and at some point someone says “Oh, that makes sense.” I love narratives that can emerge from a room of people trying to reach a conclusion.

It’s liberating to be allowed to say “I don’t know anything about that, could you tell me about it?” and have someone greet you with an enthusiastic discussion.

So I encourage people to recognize when hesitance, hedging, or fear finds its way into conversation. If we see this in the speech of others, we can make ourselves into better conversation partners and our rooms into safe places. If we can address what’s making us afraid of voicing our own words, we might be able to face our fears, and then speak our minds.

Isn’t that what confidence and courage is all about?

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