When A Woman Can’t Make Nice

For about a year I haven’t been able to speak — something I have written about extensively in this blog — and for a year and a half before that my speech was compromised, slow and increasingly garbled. Needless to say, this has presented some challenges. Phone calls. Speaking to store clerks. Speaking to friends. Speaking to my husband. Doing book readings. Really all forms of communication have been affected. Fortunately, there is reasonably good technology — computer and phone apps that “speak” — to help me out, and I am mostly able to say what I need to say, even if I can’t always say what I want to say.

What is missing with these technological solutions is spontaneity. My devices aren’t always around when I need to speak — when a visitor arrives unexpectedly, or the postman comes to the door — and even if they are, they take a moment to set up. When they’re ready the conversational moment has often passed, and whatever I intended to say has become irrelevant, so thoughts and words vanish into the ether. I’ve mostly adjusted to this situation, regretting that my humor is compromised, but realizing that every thought that occurs to me need not be said. I used to narrate much of what I was thinking, but who needs to hear that much?

Something else about the situation has only recently occurred to me, and I’m surprised I didn’t name this sooner. I am no longer able to make things nice for people, filling awkward silences with chit-chat, greeting people with the usual How are you? So good to see you!, offering guests food and drink. Until I have a device set up I emit only silence — or maybe, if it’s a close friend, I might eek out a squeal. Neither is the response of someone who is going to take charge, take care of people, attend to their needs and help everyone relax.

As is the case for many women, this has been a role I’ve assumed — not unhappily — all my life. When I was eleven and went to camp, I was called “Smiley Emmons.” I knew even then that a smile made people feel good, and I felt determined to make everyone feel good in my presence.

When I was growing up a doll was issued by Mattel that became all the rage: Chatty Cathy. If you pulled a string on her back she would say one of eleven phrases such as: I love you. Please take me with you. Let’s play school. Since then the name Chatty Cathy has become synonymous with women who talk too much and say little of consequence. I can’t help wondering if Mattel was — wittingly or unwittingly — trying to teach little girls to fill silences with phatic expressions, speech used for social or emotional purposes rather than speech that conveys meaning. I am no Chatty Cathy these days, and maybe that should be a relief, but I’m embarrassed to think that maybe I was a bit too chatty in the past.

So, is there a social role for me if I am so often silent and can’t attend to the needs of others in a group, can’t even help them relax? It occurs to me that many men navigate the world this way routinely, saying little but what is absolutely essential, even galvanizing power through their silence. I have sat in so many meetings where the women were bustling around, checking to make sure everyone had water or coffee, or copies of the meeting’s agenda, talking, talking, while the men sat unsmiling, checking their phones. The culture is accustomed to men being silent and unsmiling — we almost expect it, particularly if they are powerful. But when women sit silently in a group, they are often deemed to be hostile, anti-social, angry, arrogant, especially if they aren’t smiling (something which, as my facial muscles weaken, becomes harder for me to do).

Fortunately, so far, no one has been assuming arrogance or hostility from my silence. But my inability to lubricate social situations has been bothering me. Much as I know this role is heavily gendered, and I deplore the sexism inherent in that, I have been doing this social easing for a long time and mostly with joy. I miss it. Over decades this kind of social caretaking has become part of my personality, an outgrowth of being a woman who loves people and loves connecting the people I love to each other. Now I have no choice but to let things happen without my intervention. I’ve come to realize I’m not so necessary in all this after all — friends and husband fill in the conversational gaps and take on the caretaking.

And me? I watch ruefully from my perch on the sidelines in semi-silence, trying to imagine a new, satisfying, non-managerial role for myself. Maybe I’ll learn to preside like one of those silent men, comfortable in my power, commenting only when truly necessary.

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Cai Emmons

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.