Silence: an experiment

Just back from the NICAR, the tribal gathering of all data-oriented journalists, where I gave a talk about the importance of talking openly about uncertainty.

Last night at the conference there was a moment which, for reasons having to do with the demographics of mathematics, was unusual for me:  I was standing in a circle of five people, talking about a technical subject, centered on a talk I hadn’t attended, and the four people other than me were all women.  And it occurred to me:  this is actually a situation where it would be totally natural and appropriate for me not to contribute to the conversation.  So let me try.  Let me try to actually let this discussion go on for five minutes without opening my mouth.

And first of all let me say that I successfully did it.  But it was hard.  I felt twitchy and uncomfortable, just standing there silently.  And it was hard for me to learn about the topic being discussed, because some portion of my mind was still working hard at autogenerating answers to “What could I say now?”, interfering with my ability to listen.

I’m not proud of this.  I think when you’re a man, and you get older and acquire some amount of professional status, you start to feel like it is a kind of universal physical fact that people need to hear your view about the topic under discussion.  Whatever topic it is!  Whether you actually know anything about it or not!

Or maybe it has nothing to do with general social forces, and it’s just me.  In either case, I’m going to try being silent more often and see if I can get used to it.



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8 thoughts on “Silence: an experiment

  1. Randy Bosch says:

    Consider it a talent! “Aut tace aut loquere meliora silencio” (I will speak when my words outweigh silence. – Thanks to Nassim Nicholas Taleb)

  2. jessamyn says:

    Nice work. It just gets easier from here.

  3. Leila says:

    Most men behave like you describe, but I bet only one in a thousand even notices anything, let alone speak about it openly. I am blown away by your post. I think it qualifies as “rarissime”. If I hadn’t already adopted you as my younger brother I would do it again!

  4. Adam Hertzman says:

    Worth an entire chapter in your next book! Love! I have noticed this problem even more prominently in business. In my last company, I often found myself saying to other men in the room, “I believe [insert woman’s name] was about to say something and you cut her off.”

  5. Jan says:

    I used to get cut off a lot too. However, when you’re a man, it’s considered your own weakness. When it happens to women, it’s sexism.

  6. GNG says:

    Would the point (e.g., “don’t opine about technical lectures you haven’t attended”) be any different if the other 4 people had been men? It didn’t sound at all like the epiphany was that because the 4 others happened to be women, those eager beaver vocal-universal-expert tendencies were even harder to suppress than in the usual situation of a male majority.

    The actual story seems to be about noticing in real time that several “risk factors” for an undesired behavior applied to you (such as you being male, a successful prodigy, and hyperarticulate, but not the genders of the people in the group), and the interesting experimental verification of how strong those risk factors are. If that reading is correct, then the gender angle seems rather the opposite of what you wrote: it’s the fact that the others were women (given the extremely wide propagation of the women-in-science-are-bullied theme) that triggered the sudden self-awareness.

    If you did mean to confess to suddenly realizing a personal tendency to lecture at women more so than men, that sounds a bit unlikely in your specific case, but if you really think that’s what it was, then the post becomes fairly impressive for the reasons Leila mentioned.

  7. eumati says:

    It is not necessary for him to be more likely to lecture at women for the effect to ensue, if women are more likely to hold back/be silenced. Or, to put it the other way, if women are more likely to prioritize conversational partners/leave space for others to talk.

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