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On Silence and Shells
Mia Silberstein '20 Contributing Writer
March 7, 2019
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In the American classroom, speech is intelligence and volume is power. We have fostered a culture in which those who speak most are praised for their extroversion and boldness, while those who stay silent are berated for their lack of enthusiasm, interest, or even intellect. As a culture, we have come to understand that intelligence is measured by the duration for which one speaks, not the quality of their contributions. We have been taught to prize the student who speaks the loudest, or persists the longest until their voice dominates over all others. We then see the quiet students as those incapable or stunted by their lack of aggression or intrinsic introversion.

Credit: Natasha Leong

Movies have sought to romanticize such a character as the smart, shy student who knows all the answers but huddles quietly in the corner – but who, by the end of the film, has been “brought out of their shell” and speaks openly and proudly in front of the awestruck class, usually to the crescendo of an indie pop hit as the closing credits roll. We have therefore been taught that quietness is an unnatural affliction to be cured.

The term “brought out of your shell” has always been puzzling to me. I believe that shells, in animals that possess them, are there for a purpose – protection, shelter, even survival. To suggest that the thing which some individuals use as their means of survival is something they then must be stripped of, or “brought out of,” is to suggest that their adapted way of life is less-than, or inadequate, when, in fact, it is simply another facet of their being. Yet we find ourselves, time and time again, submitting to the loudest, most aggressive voices, simply because those of us with shells were not created to shed them.

I believe that the experience of a quiet student is not inherently gendered. However, as a woman in American society, I carry a separate burden; a separate shell, carefully crafted through centuries of a male-dominated culture.

Historically, we have taught women to sit, submit, agree, and leave the airspace to the men, who are brought up to believe that say is a given extension of their existence.

As women, we are taught that in inserting ourselves into this airspace, we carry a certain responsibility to produce something worthy of expending attention, and, inevitably, we feel the compulsion to ask permission before doing so. We have been brought up to ask permission for things that are ours simply by the birthright of being human (such as speaking up in a classroom), yet all our lives are subconsciously drilled into us as privileges or exceptions.

Women are taught that the space we occupy is rented. We are haunted by feelings of inadequacy, impermanence, and impostor syndrome, yet we are surrounded by men who claim that space as birthright. We are taught to second guess and repress until we are left with only our own voices in our heads for company. It is no wonder that this manifests itself in the classroom.

I struggle daily to not only unlearn the lessons of restraint and silence so deeply ingrained in our culture, but to combat an element of my personality which I have been consistently told is incompatible with the world around me.

Whether quietness is due to nature or nurture, the misconceptions around it must change in order for society to advance. The shell of quietness is not inherently inferior. However, the perpetuation of traditions that seek to thrust that shell onto those who were not born with it is quite a different story.