Thursday, February 16, 2006

SPEAK SOFTLY, LIVE BRIGHT YELLOW


The day I met Marilyn
Originally uploaded by malidinapoli.

I consider myself to be a very quiet person. Shy. Introverted. Typical writer type. That's why I was surprised when a co-worker once informed me that you could hear my voice all over the hotel where we worked. Not only was I always talking--I was loud.

Hmmm. That gave me pause, but not quite long enough to actually--err, shut-up.

I'd like to say that I talk loudly because I come from a large family, and I had to speak up in order to be heard. But as an only child, I don't think that one would work. Maybe it's the writer thing. I don't get out much, and when I do, I want to talk.

But mostly I think I speak at an inflated volume when I'm feeling vehemently about something. And it seems I'm in the vehement mood quite often.

I can't tell you how many people my father and I scared away when we debated politics. As the passion rose, so did our voices until we were both screaming and purple. But what the scattered victims of our discussions didn't understand was that the hollaring had nothing to do with anger. It was just emotion--and probably a little showmanship thrown in, too. (We're talking two Leos here, for those who subscribe to astrology.) When we'd exhausted ourselves, we'd return to Mom's pot roast like nothing had occurred.

But after XX years of speaking to be HEARD, I decided to change. And as is often the case with my resolutions, the inspiration was an obituary. Edna Lewis--cook, dress designer, writer, and worker for social justice was remembered in Tuesday's New York Times in an obit I had to clip for my collection.

I loved the story of how this young talented black woman was fired after three hours from the only job she could find when she first arrived in New York City. The job was ironing, and this was a woman clearly not born to iron.

I also loved the sound of her famous recipe for shrimp and grits.
"It's just butter and shirimp, but it requires great butter and great shrimp, and a puddle of that over stoned ground grits," said John T. Edge, the director of the something called The Southern Foodways Alliance. "This pays homage to the frugal south, but it's also worthy of damask cloth." Now that's eating--though with the price of butter and shrimp, I'm not sure how frugal it is.

But it wasn't the recipe for shrimp that changed my life. It was the description of Lewis's manner:

"She just had a very quiet way of speaking and it really engaged you," chef Alice Waters remembered. "Because she was so soft-spoken, you had to listen carefully. There was a kind of intimacy you immediately had."

Well, those words struck a couple of days ago, and I've been practicing my softer tone ever since. Not sure how long it will last because I make resolutions all the time, and usually nature and years of habit quashes them within a week. But I've already learned a few things just from my experiment:

1. You really don't have to shout to be heard. I think I was afraid that if I didn't speak UP, no one would pay attention to what I had to say. Not true! They seem to be listening even more closely.

2. Speaking softly is about much more than talking. It's about courtesy, because if you speak in a low voice, you can't barge into the middle of someone else's sentence. You've got to wait. Thus, in two days, I've found myself becoming a better listener.

3.It's really hard to be curt or blustering or abrasive when speaking quietly.

4. A simple thing like adopting a quiet tone of voice effects changes far beyond itself.
Since I've started, I've felt more composed, more moderate in all things--simply calmer.

I'm telling you: there are some amazing lives recorded on the obituary pages. Some amazing lessons.

32 comments:

Sky said...

Thanks for this insight - it is a lesson I, too, need to consider. I have never intended the "tone" and volume others sometimes hear in my voice which is often filled with strength and passion and volume.

My husband says he thinks I may be a little hard of hearing since I do speak loudly, even when it seems unnecessary. He notices this especially when I am on the telephone. I should have this checked out. But, I also want to try to become more conscious of volume when I speak. I can't change it until I am aware of it!

Fred Garber said...

I loved this post. I am mouthy....I admit it. I was raised in a family where we argued politics and religion at the dinner table if you wanted to eat with the adults. About the the only time I shut my pie hole is on Sundays when the priest is giving his homily. I am going to go read that obit. There was a great obit in the Village voice about a cabbie...Leo Lazarus... you might like it....http://villagevoice.com/news/0607,robbins,72187,5.html

Patry Francis said...

sky: I think I get loud on the phone, too. It's true though: consciousness of any issue is the first step.

fred: Thanks for the pointing me to Leo Lazarus obit. A great name and an even better life story. I wish I had the privilege of riding in his cab...

Priyamvada_K said...

Ah. Thanks for that post. Will practice quiet speech too.

Btw, I hear you on people mistaking passion for anger.

Priya.

Dale said...

Fascinating to read this, because I've had a lifetime of thinking of my soft speech as a vice -- as my shyness & inadequacy & unconfidence made (barely) audible. Startling, and encouraging, to think it could be viewed some other way.

dog1net said...

Patry,
Love how you use self-deprecation at the beginning to highlight in a humorous way how deafening we can sometimes be to others. A quiet voice, though, as you so well convey, is an assured voice, which "effects changes far beyond itself."
Scot

Rexroth's Daughter said...

Great post, Patry. I love thinking abou this. I have a quiet voice, but it does rise with great passion. Most people don't know that about me because I am always reserved until I am home, and then watch out! I yell my head off about everything. I have always had a loud laugh, though. You can hear me laughing a zillion miles away, and from any setting in the world.

Simply Coll said...

I think I too will try to speak a little softer.
I think I too will start paying attention to the obituaries.
Thanks for the good advise on both accounts.

donna said...

I'm not shy, but I do speak softly much of the time. I often have people ask me to repeat what I said. Which is funny, since I was trained as a singer and know how to project when I want to. I think I sort of subconsciously do it as a way to find out who is really listening.

And I listen much more than I speak, which means I know lots of things about people they may not think I know. Which tends to give me an edge in dealing with them.

And most people mistake passion for anger. Most people in our society don't seem to know what to do with emotion, unless it's in the movies or on TV. In real life, it tends to scare the crap out of them.

boulies said...

This is a very humbling post. My family would always get pretty wild and crazy and...loud. I always thought of it as a positive thing; like we were extra passionate about things. Maybe this attitude makes one walk around with a chip on their shoulder. I relate to what you're saying about loudness giving the false impression of being more effective. I'm certainly guilty of it at times. I'll think of your reasons for quietude as I reflect back to the old saying, "walk softly and carry a big stick." Thank you for this reflection.

Mr.D. said...

Thanks for calling by, and leaving a note...

Mary said...

This is fascinating, just fascinating. I'm very quiet unless I'm with someone I really trust. And I've always had a sneaking envy for mouthy, loud types. They just seem so sure of themselves ... and that must be a wonderful thing to be.

It's easy not to be a good listener when you're quiet as well. It is such an effort sometimes not to jump into the middle of someone's sentence, even in a soft voice. :-)

And as for 2 Leos arguing. I can imagine only too well what that was like ...

Jean said...

I loved this, Patry, because you evoke so well something I completely identify with. I too think of myself as very quiet and shy and have often been criticised by others and felt critical of myself for this, but at the same time I have also had negative feedbck for being over loud and emphatic, which somehow seems very strange and unfair. I think what you say about getting loud because you feel something deeply is true. It also may be the case, for me at least, that I get loud and overemphatic too quickly both because of unconfidence and because, being quiet a lot of the time, I don't get enough practice in moderating my tone appropriately. I am always struck by, and very much admire, people who speak slowly and quietly, but authoritatively. Kofi Annan springs to mind. It is something I always mean to give some attention to cultivating. At the same time, though, I think you can take it too far and it sometimes indicates being too controlled - getting carried away by our feelings is sometimes justified and I wouldn't want to crush it completely in myself or others.

It's always lovely to find someone else saying something you have often thought to yourself :-)

Lorna said...

When I was a teenager, I learned to sign. A beautiful way to speak softly.

Laini Taylor said...

I have to try to keep myself in check a bit too. Get carried away - and arguing politics with my dad? Forget it. I'm not the loudest one in my family, but the volume and heat of our dinner discussions often shocks the uninitiated, and I wouldn't have it any other way -- but I do have to bite my cheek to keep from interrupting people in my everyday life!

floots said...

to change the old agage slightly - speak softly and carry a big pen
i enjoyed this
cheers

Richard Lawrence Cohen said...

Uh-oh, I hope I don't have to start reading obituaries yet. I still feel it's a little early for that. But a great post nevertheless, Patry, and I thank you for it. I'm a soft-spoken person myself but I was raised and "educated" by screamers, so I know how to do it -- too much, at times.

Cate said...

This is a glorious post! Initially, I felt defensive about your "loud voice" (wanted you to stand firm, to scream) but I loved the cross-over and the subsequent realizations that you made.

Regardless of whether you speak loudly or softly, your words definitely roar!

Myfanwy Collins said...

As usual, your wisdom inspires, Patry.

MB said...

Oh! I like what Floots said.

I don't think I've ever been accused of being too loud, though in the past plenty of times for being too soft. I like to think I've got a pretty good balance now ;-) . I think my tendency to be quiet stems from what I was accustomed to/trained for growing up but also how sensitive I am to noise and emotions of those around me. Interesting to think about.

Natalie said...

Me too, In my family, everyone spoke loudly and all at the same time. I have to exercise huge self-control not to interrupt others, especially when I think I know what they're going to say next.
Excellent post. I will practice soft-speaking.

colleen said...

Down here a lot of people think of "Yankees" are loud and rude. I always say..."we are "direct," which can translate at times as blunt (speaking for myself here).

I think for me it's a matter of slowing down and listening more. That alone would probably take the volumne of my voice down some. My probably is that if I don't say it NOW I forget it the next second. I'm an introvert too...but not known for being soft spoken.

I love your hobby. What newspapers do you use? I like to read to check out the old Virgina first names they used. They are very inventive.

rdl said...

quiet leo - sounds like an oxymoron.:D

MB said...

I forgot to mention how much I enjoyed your title!

liz elayne said...

To stop by to visit Patry is to have tea with someone and learn from their experiences. Thank you, as always, for sharing the beauty of yours. This caused me to recall my 5th grade English teacher Mr. Martin telling me I was serene. Hmmm. I would like to go back to that sometimes. The quiet, serenity of a person who listens and talks quietly...at least sometimes.

Marilyn said...

I work with a loud talker. Her desk is clear across the (open) office, but I used to have a desk that was right next to hers...I couldn't take it. Our desks were at an angle, so it was like she was shouting in my right ear all day. I'm a quiet person by nature, but I grow even quieter in her presence because she's also extremely nosy and tries to listen in on every (work) conversation I have...she'll often butt in and try to correct me (as if I don't know what I'm doing...I have about a trillion more skills and competencies than she does)...it will always turn out that she'll think I was talking about oranges when I was referring to apples. So I've turned my work volume WAY, WAY down just to have some privacy in my workplace. I'm very forthright and blunt and honest in what I say, so my low speaking volume doesn't translate into shyness about subject matter. It's funny...she's constantly trying to listen in on my conversations...and I'm constantly trying to tune hers out! :)

la la la I can't hear you said...

I used to tend to talk loudly (I have good excuses for it: big family, Irish and Italian genes, Aires). But I also have been trying to be quieter and calmer. I admit I still do often talk too loudly. But I think I'm doing better. Thanks for the inspirational post!

chosha said...

Interesting. I sometimes consciously lower my tone, but often forget. What I'd really like is a softer laugh. My laugh is quite pretty when I'm a little amused, but if something is just hilarious I tend to shriek out a laugh before I can help it. :$

finnegan said...

Everyone should listen carefully to their recorded voices--we often hate the sound of it for good reason. Why don't we hear others' in the same way?

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