I Don't Wanna Listen Any More
Updated: May 13, 2018
I am good at listening.
I am good at saying ‘oh really?’ and ‘GOD that sounds AWFUL!’ and ‘that’s amazing!’ in all the right tones and places. I am an expert at laughter at the correct volume and pitch.
Recently, I conducted an experiment. In my interactions with men I had only just met – in bars, at parties, on the train – I waited to see how long it took until I was asked one question, unprompted. More often than not, the question never came, or only after an extended lag. The men I interacted with were happy to talk, and talk, and talk, and I was more than happy to listen. I walked away from the interaction with vast knowledge of their life, who they lived with, the intricate politics of their office environment, the countries they had travelled, how many cold ones they could put away on a night out. What did they know about me? Nothing. I was but an ethereal nymph, disappearing as quickly as I had come.
I am tired of being in situations with men in which I am not asked one question. I am tired of conversations with men where nothing is really expected of me beyond auto-pilot ‘smiling and nodding’.
I was first confronted with this at university. Fresh from the all-girls school bubble, it was the first time I was in a formal classroom setting with the opposite sex. I found that men were brilliant at bullshit in a way I had never seen. Words flowed from their mouths like fine silk. Emotions were complex but words were easy. These classes would always go the same way. I would sit and watch these 19 year olds, in their skinny jeans and high-top trainers, faces dappled in the last vestiges of adolescent acne, waxing lyrical on the most difficult concepts of Western thought. The girls stayed quiet. We listened intently. We wrote everything down. We made soft, non-threatening comments in italics like they are a question? In our small patch of allowed time? Before we are interrup -
By a boy saying something LOUDLY in BOLD TYPE and CAPITAL LETTERS and everyone turning to look and nod along.
None of this is new. But why does it happen? Why do men and women fall so automatically into these rhythms? Are men just genetically disposed to public speaking? Is a mastery of bullshit written into their DNA, nestled between a love of sports and a talent for DIY? Of course not. Most of these boys had the support of fifteen years of all-boys public school education, which encouraged them to speak up and be loud and be confident at every turn, raising their hand even (especially) when they didn’t know the answer.
It is no great surprise. The world, in so many nebulous ways, tells women to shut up and men to speak up.
I’ll never forget, in our last meeting with our tutor before our notorious final exams, he surveyed us all and leaned back in his chair. His final comment will stay with me forever.
“The cliché, of course” he pontificated, with a rogue smile, “is that the girls read every book on the reading list, write lots of pretty notes, and get a 2’1. The boys read half the reading list, turn up with one biro, and get a First".
This was not the first time I’d heard this. I’d been plagued by versions of this cliché my whole life. The statement bothers me because, like all of these kind of generalisations, it divides the world into a false, gendered dichotomy: half the people are like this and half the people are like this. It bothers me because it doesn’t correspond with how I see myself. I never wrote pretty notes. I had never read everything on the reading list. But, more importantly, the stereotype bothers me because it puts a ceiling on my achievements. I am a woman. Therefore, I can only get so far. I am allowed to be bright. I am allowed to be hard-working. I am allowed to be fun. But genius? Brilliant? The best? These will always be just beyond my reach.
He was joking, of course, thinking that by acknowledging the statement as a cliché, he wouldn’t come across as old-fashioned. But, nonetheless, the statement hung in the air, internalised by the boys and the girls in the room.
At the same meeting, every girl in the class asked questions that beckoned catastrophe: “what if I panic in the middle of the exam?” “what if I don’t finish?” “what if I answer the wrong question?” “what if I get a third?” (the answer to all of these, of course, was “then we all die and the world ends and we all get sucked into the great abyss, obviously”). But the men sat back, ready for their moment, reassuring the girls with a patronising ease that it would all be fine.
My grandmother is a brilliant woman and one of the most well read people I’ve ever met. She went to Radcliffe (Harvard’s women’s college before they were allowed into the main university). She told me about the classes she had at the men’s college and I was saddened by how similar they seemed to my own experience of university, 55 years later. She, too, felt shy to speak up in class, preferring to defer to the men around her to avoid conflict or judgement.
So, these attitudes are in the air we breathe, the water we drink. They are vital to the fabric of society, passed down from mother to daughter and father to son. If we are given the same mask, over and over again, it becomes our face. Women are told they are not destined to achieve quite as much as their male counterparts and, consistently, they don’t. There is a well-documented gap in Finals achievements nationwide between male and female students and men, of course, still go on to achieve far more financial and career success in adult life. Why? Because men are built to be confident risk-takers, with no doubt their opinions will be supported and reinforced.
Truthfully, I like listening. I am in my element as an audience member. I have always naturally gravitated towards a position of observer rather than participant. I spent the first ten years of my life in wide-eyed wonderment, extremely shy, looking around and absorbing this strange late-90s Earth I had been thrust into. But I’d like to be given the choice. I’d like to be asked questions. I’d like to enforce my own point of view, sometimes, too.
The world doesn’t like women to speak. Women are ‘shhed’ far more than men, and eyes often begin to glaze over when a woman speaks for too long. Women who are outspoken in the public arena, particularly if they are not thin and conventionally beautiful, face horrific abuse on social media. Contained in all this is a message: your voice is irritating. What you have to say is not worth being heard. The words and worlds contained inside of you don’t deserve a space to exist out loud.
I feel sad when I look back on my university years, and all the times I nodded along, allowing men to tell me about the world.
We need to do more to encourage women to speak and men to listen. We need to normalise, in the public sphere, women speaking at length and with conviction, so the instinctual response to woman’s loud voice is not bristles of discomfort. AA Gill wrote an extraordinary piece for Vanity Fair called "The Silent Beauty", extolling the virtues of Kate Moss as a woman who is sensible enough to know her place - and be seen, not heard.
We need to stop seeing the silent woman - the painted muse, the beautiful print model, Princess Kate, soon-to-be-silent Meghan Markle - and the ideal woman as one and the same because it suggests that a woman loses something the moment she opens her mouth.
When a man is described as having a ‘good sense of humour’, more often than not, it means he’s funny. When a woman is described as having a ‘good sense of humour’, more often than not, it means she is a brilliant receptacle for jokes, laughing readily in all the right places. Men are praised, often, for what they put out into the world. Women are praised, often, for their powers of absorption and care.
Sometimes the hardest thing to do is actually the easiest. If you love, like or even just respect a woman - or even if you don’t - pay attention to what she has to say. Stop for a moment. Sit back. Wait. Let her speak.
Written by Matilda Curtis
Illustrated by India Boxall