About twice a week, I can’t speak. While writing is easy, talking is not. My voice just… stops. And it’s not a cough or a sore throat. It’s more a kind of intellectual stutter. Where it feels like I don’t. Have. Any. Words.
There comes a time in your late teens or 20s when you’re a grown-up and no longer allowed to identify as shy, so I can’t excuse it with that. The last time I think I could legally have described myself as shy was the afternoon I vomited with nerves over a Christmas recorder concert. But this thing is just as physical. It’s like forgetting how to walk and falling to my knees mid-road. A physical reaction to something invisible; an oral rash. It happens, I realise, when I feel out of my depth. When I’m in a conversation, often a public conversation – a meeting, or one of those formal chats that smell of the first coffee of the day, fermenting on tongues at 11.30 – when I will open my mouth in the long space allotted for me to speak, and I will say nothing. Inside I’m screaming. “BE COOL, EVA,” I’m shouting inside my chest. “Just reach deep in there for the things you think and press them out of your mouth through a mincer of words that fit, is that so bloody hard?” Nothing comes.
It’s a combination of problems, I think. A buttery mash of bad memory, indecision and the real fear of being found out. Even on topics which I’ve read about at length, on topics which I really care about, unless I’m coddled in a room of people I know and trust – people who already like me – I stumble, and stutter and then I fall mute. This wouldn’t be a problem but for the fact that today, when much of my job is writing, increasingly I’m expected to perform, too. To go on the radio and discuss things like “the problem with hen nights”. To do screen tests for documentaries about fashion and technology, or sit on a televised panel and discuss the state of modern feminism. To stand on a stage, in front of 500 people, and talk about make-up and the ageing body for no less than 28 minutes but no more than 30. This I cannot do.
Talking is a skill I’ve yet to learn. I like it when I recognise people who are like me, tongues tied, and try and work out what we share. It can’t be simply that we weren’t privately educated, didn’t attend debating societies or grow up shouting over the sound of a hunt. It can’t be that we’re not bright enough, because, honestly – the crap I’ve heard said in long words, loudly. Is it just these old basic insecurities, stuck in my throat? Is the only thing you need, to be able to talk, the self-belief that you’re worth listening to?
I can’t help but think that this specific skill – the ability to articulate – should either be consciously and seriously taught to everybody (I write this the day we learn that the top universities are taking even fewer state-educated pupils than a decade ago) or else that we should establish more ways of effectively communicating.
There should be more to conversation than noisiness and speed. There should be room for more than the voice that tells you: “The thing about this is…” Room for questions and discussion, and changing your mind, rather than just listening quietly to a single authority. Real life is not a TED talk. Real life is a dialogue. It is thoughtful voices chuckling together, and things Tippexed out, and smoky pauses while you look for the right analogy.
Maybe, then, talking is not a skill I should aim to conquer – maybe I should settle for only speaking to those who have time for my silences. Maybe I should succumb to this, this red-faced muteness, in the knowledge that something is lost when only those who speak well are heard. Or, more importantly than being taught to speak, perhaps, we should be taught to listen.
– Eva Wiseman
The Observer, Sunday 23 June 2013