My silence is, in fact, a compliment. It means that I am being my natural self. It means that I am comfortable around you, that I trust you enough to engage my way of knowing, my way of speaking and interacting.
When I dilute my silences with words — your words, the out-of-the-mouth and off-the-cuff kind — I often do so out of fear. Fear that my rhetorical commonplaces — the commonplaces that lie on my hands, sprint in my eyes, or sit nestled in empty sounds — will bring you shame. Fear that my ways of communicating will be branded as pathology, as aberrant, as not being communication at all. Fear that I will lose my job. Fear that I will lose your friendship, guidance, or interest in me. Fear that I’ll be institutionalized. Fear that I will be infantilized. Fear that I’ll be seen as less than human.
This isn’t to say that my use of your language is always a product of fear. There are times when I genuinely want to use it, understand it, and learn about and from it. I understand that speaking is how you prefer to communicate. I understand that speaking is how you best learn and interact. I understand that you take great joy in speaking and listening to others speak. And I do, I really do want to share in that joy.
But the burden can’t always rest on me. I have a language too, one that I take joy in, one that I want to share. And when you deny me that — when you identify my silence as a personality flaw, a detriment, a symptom, a form of selfishness, a matter in need of behavioral therapy or “scripting” lessons — when you do these things, you hurt me. You hurt me deeply. You deny me that which I need in order to find my way through this confusing, oppressive, neurotypical world.
My silence isn’t your silence. My silence is rich and meaningful. My silence is reflection, meditation, and processing. My silence is trust and comfort. My silence is a sensory carnival. My silence is brimming with the things and people around me — and only in that silence can I really know them, appreciate them, “speak” to them, and learn from them.
Speaking is an unnatural process for me. When socializing through speech, I will almost always be awkward, and I am OK with that awkwardness. In fact, I am learning to embrace that awkwardness, learning to reclaim and redefine that awkwardness. I am sorry you’re not OK with that, sorry that you feel I need to practice, or take anti-psychotics, or frequent the university hospital’s psych ward. I’m sorry that you won’t appreciate me for who I am and how I operate in the world. I’m sorry that I can no longer consider you an ally, confidante, or friend.
Melanie Yergeau is an assistant professor of English at the University of Michigan. She blogs at aspie rhetor.
Socializing through silence appears here by permission.
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