The Things We Learn: Quiet

Stand in a party with a group of people, and notice something. The women are quieter, and smaller, than the men. Not unilaterally, but it’s a very clear trend. Women lower their voices, shrink down to take up less space, turn their bodies in nonconfrontational ways. Men are loud, facing conversations head-on, gesticulating. Is this due to natural differences between men and women? No, of course not. It’s about socialisation, the things we learn, and the fact that people who are socialised as women are taught both to be quiet, and to avoid taking up space.

I was socialised as a woman, and I break this rule: I’m loud. I have a deep (for someone with my endocrinology), carrying voice, and especially when I’m excited, I talk loudly, and quickly. I’ve been criticised for it more than once, particularly by women, who think I’m ‘too loud.’ But what is ‘too loud’? Why are people so invested in telling women that they’re being noisy and they need to quiet down?

It’s telling that loud women (and people read as such) are considered offensive — there’s a common meme in white culture, for example, that Black and Latina women are ‘too loud,’ and that Black women in particular are noisy. It comes with racist implications. Black women take up too much space. They’re too much to deal with. They aren’t ‘real women’ because they’re just so noisy, and women are supposed to be quiet, demure, sedate. Sit on a train with some Black women, white people will tell you, sagely, and your ears will start ringing because they just don’t know how to quiet down like a respectable woman should.

The lesson that women should be quiet, while men should talk at any volume that suits them, is imparted and reinforced repeatedly in society and throughout childhood. Young women learn at a very early age, from both their mothers and their fathers, that it’s critical to modulate their voices. ‘Indoor voices’ for women at all times, and little girls, too, must learn to be quiet, to shrink down, to present a meek target in a conversation. Anyone who misses this lesson, or defies it, is viewed with disdain.

There is, of course, value in being able to moderate your voice. If I’m visiting a friend in the ICU, I need to drop the volume out of respect to other patients. I don’t raise my voice in the library as it’s intended to be a quiet space. Likewise, if I’m at a dinner party and want to help keep the overall volume down so people can hear (a particular concern for me, as I’m hard of hearing and have trouble tracking conversations in a noisy environment), I keep my own voice down — and it’s notable that when my conversation partner is a woman, she lowers hers too, while men don’t pick up on the cue, because they’ve never undergone the socialisation that mandates their silence.

Throughout history, the idea that women need to be submissive, meek, and quiet has been embedded into many descriptions of the ideal woman and how women should behave in society. Women who have been noisy, both metaphorically and literally, have been punished for it; think of the censure heaped upon ‘outspoken’ women, and the way people talk about women who refuse to remain silent in the fact of oppression, inequality, and other social ills. Women who don’t shut up are categorised as shrill, or annoying, again, sometimes by other women, who seem very invested in maintaining the social idea that women must be silent in order to have value.

As a scheme for reinforcing oppression, it’s brilliant. By telling members of marginalised groups that they must be quiet and calm in social situations and in society in general, you can discard those who refuse to follow those rules, and not listen to their voices, no matter how loud they are. You can also further contribute to their marginalisation, casting them as subhuman and lesser because they can’t follow the basic social contract — those Latinas laughing on the bus aren’t like those nice white ladies sitting tensely across from them, who understand that you need to be quiet when out in public, shhh. 

This socialisation runs so deep that it can be extremely difficult to shake it off. Having a soft, moderate voice is a prized trait in women, and woe betide the woman who doesn’t have one. Even in supposedly progressive circles where people claim to be aware of the influence of sexism in their lives and the role of social pressures like expectations that women be nice and quiet and calm at all times, people are often reluctant to acknowledge this particular arm of sexism, and the way it works against women.

Women deserve to be heard. Sometimes that means they need to raise their voices — sometimes that means they need to talk at a normal volume. A forcibly quieted voice, however, is not a ‘normal volume.’ It’s a volume that women have been trained since childhood to exhibit, and it’s one that women have the right to throw off. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having a naturally loud voice and using it, and those who say otherwise are playing into the idea that women need to shut up, sit down, and wait patiently while the adults (all men, of course) are talking.

It’s scary to start using your voice when you’ve spent your whole life being told not to. It can feel very uneasy and stressful. But that moment when you take it back and defy social norms can be a powerful one.

Image Credit: The Quiet Woman, Earl Sterndale, Katherine Herriman, Flickr