Don’t Quiet Down Please
By Shay Siegel
I was voted ‘quietest’ in high school, an achievement that required me to send in an embarrassing picture of myself doing the “shh” sign to the yearbook committee (see below). Because being ‘loudest’ is where it’s really at, right? Apparently. It wasn’t one of those things that I developed one day because some traumatic incident occurred that scarred me for life or anything like that. No, I have always been shy. It kind of became the signature thing about me as I grew up—not quite the trademark everyone would strive for. The quiet girl—a la Hampton Bays High School 2008 yearbook.
I was diagnosed “selective mute” at age seven. Now, I know what you are thinking, “Is that a thing?” I am here to tell you that yes, it is a real thing. I wouldn’t speak to anyone other than family and a few close friends. So, you see I was selecting whom I would be mute to. I am proud to report; however, that I am no longer selectively mute with the exception of Terrance who I am afraid will remain selected because quite frankly, he deserves it. I don’t see myself as just ‘the quiet girl’, but it isn’t as if I can show people the rest of who I am right when I meet them. That is not something that quiet introverts do. I’m not the person who will spill her life story in the first fifteen minutes of meeting her. i.e.: “Hi, I’m Sandra, OMG that cake looks so good. Is that hazelnut? I have the BEST hazelnut cake recipe, passed down from my grandma. The secret is just a pinch of salt, funny how one ingredient can totally change the recipe, right? Anyway, I really shouldn’t be eating cake, I have this wedding coming up and I have to fit into my dress. Strapless dress! Ugh, that cake really does look good though, maybe just a bite.” Now, me, I usually just say “Hi, nice to meet you.” And, it’s most likely barely audible at that.
In a previous life, I was a European gentleman who was protesting Parliament. At least that’s what one of my therapists told me. After all the sporadic therapy over the years and all the different interpretations as to why I have so much trouble speaking, this one finally did it—she found the cause of my anxiety and shyness. She is an “energy healer” who can sense things in other realms. So, when she told me that I was a Scandinavian activist many lifetimes ago who was beheaded for what he had said at a political hearing, I had no choice but to believe her. I am all for blaming problems on past lives.
Even though I now know the cause of my selective mutism, it doesn’t quite make the speaking pressures any easier. It has been within the last few years that I have really had to accept that this is who I am. When I started the fiction program at Sarah Lawrence, I didn’t realize how much speaking there would be in the writing program. Isn’t this why writers are writers and not speakers? Apparently not. And it isn’t as though these are big classrooms like say a lecture hall or maybe a basketball arena. No, these are tiny rooms with round tables and sometimes as few as seven students in a class. You can’t hide. People do not forget that you are there. And you certainly cannot stand up and explain that you have a condition due to your colorful past as a European Greenpeace activist—not that I would ever stand up to make an announcement anyway.
When I was younger, in school, I used to write notes for my teachers when they would ask me a question. Things such as, “the correct spelling of banana is b-a-n-a-n-a,” (I was a fantastic speller). This writing of notes didn’t only take place in school; it translated to my home life as well. Not my actual home life because my parents were puzzled as to how I had so much trouble speaking to others, but was as loud and annoying as an incessant, buzzing mosquito at home. One time I tried to sell my sister the leftover cheese off my plate at a restaurant, and I would frequently tell my dad to ‘bring all he’s got’ when he’d take me shopping. I would run through the house screaming, porpoise on the bed, and my friend and I even started a “band” where I was the lead singer. But, these instances were all about who I was comfortable with. I used to go over my best friend’s house everyday, and her mom was a receiver of some of my infamous ‘substitute for voice interaction’ notes. One day I was at her house and while we were prancing around the yard on our stick horses, we discovered that her cat, Midnight, had kittens. My friend told me to run into the house and tell her mom about the newborn felines. This is the effective way in which the selective mute child delivered such information:
My family used to joke about hoping that no one ever got sick or injured around me because I would be too shy to call nine-one-one. I’d like to think I could have overcome the shyness and risen to the occasion when faced with a real crisis, but thankfully I never had to find out. That phone call would have been brutal—only because I’d have to talk to a stranger, of course—and perhaps would have led to my own illness. i.e.: Severe panic attack.
Most people consider being shy a bad thing because we are all expected to not just have lots to say, but to actually say it. We live in a world where exterior success and image is valued over who we are on the inside. You must show who you are! So, of course, those who don’t struggle with social situations won’t realize that shy people do most likely have a lot to say. As a result, you have the teachers who will feel they have to force quiet students to participate by calling on them in class. If I had a nickel for every time I heard, “Now, Sharon, what did you think of that?” Well, I’d have a lot of nickels. It’s not like I’m not paying attention, if anything I’d bet I’m listening more intently than most. It’s called selective mutism! And then, there are all the people who feel the need to keep repeating, “You’re so quiet!” Why thank you for stating the obvious and pointing out that there is something different about me, moreover, suggesting that this difference is wrong. Why not just push my insecurities to the surface, people? How would they feel if I went around saying, “Oh my gosh, you’re so fat!” or maybe “Whoa, you’re extremely smelly!” I’d say it’s probably an equally pleasant experience to hear about how quiet you are every single day. And, for some reason it’s acceptable to point this out, but not to point out weight and hygiene issues. Of course, I’d never say those things anyway. Not just because they’re quite rude, but also because I don’t say much to strangers.
This is who I am, and I have mostly made peace with it. There is a certain girl, let’s call her Marian. She really helped me come to terms with my shyness. Not because she is a nice person who discussed it with me, but because she is the loudest, most annoying human in the world that has to make every situation about herself. (Refer to ‘Sandra’ on page two). So, I had to say to myself “Well, I’d rather not say a word than sound like a cackling hyena from The Lion King all day long.” I would not strive to be someone who talks a lot but doesn’t say anything.
Do I feel stupid when I sit through my classes or at work not saying a word? Sure. But it isn’t logical for me to tell myself I’m going to be the liveliest participant in a group discussion. I’ve tried telling myself that before and my real self knew I was being a damned liar. Sometimes accepting who we are is half the battle. The other half is finding a profession where there is as little human interaction as possible.
Shay Siegel is from Long Island, New York. She received a B.A. in English from Tulane University in New Orleans where she was a member of the Women’s Tennis Team. She recently completed an MFA in Fiction at Sarah Lawrence College. Her writing has appeared in The Montreal Review, Burning Word, Mouse Tales Press, The Cat’s Meow for Writers and Readers, The Rusty Nail Literary Magazine, Belleville Park Pages, Black Heart Magazine and Extract(s). Her website is www.shaysiegel.com.