I was at dinner with three male friends yesterday. We were at a tiny, local restaurant known more for its cheap, tasty food than its ambience or refinement. All around us were people in groups talking, laughing and eating. The proprieter sat at one of the tables counting money while the waiters buzzed in and out of the kitchen door, mingling their words with the diners’ conversations. The place was so tiny, that we could practically hear the rumbling of stomachs from nearby tables. Yes, that kind of place.
I only became conscious of it about half an hour into the meal. The friend who was wedged in next to me would keep going,
“Shh! Shh! Softer! Don’t talk so loudly!”
It’s not the first time I’ve heard this. I have a loud voice and a personality to match and when I’m excited, it tends to rise. In addition, I live in a very noisy part of a very crowded city. Most of my conversations have to be conducted at a high volume just to cut across whatever cacaphony the restaurant/cafe deems is ambience music, the bandwidth my phone service provider is able to give me at peak hours and horns blaring on roads where one’s importance is expressed by how loud and often you can honk. Wait. I don’t need to explain. I’m loud. Period.
His relentless shushing had its effect and I fell silent for a bit. It is like being slapped hard on the face everytime someone turns to you and tells you (politely) to SHUT UP. And the noise around me immediately crowded in to cover any possible space that had opened up by my falling silent. That’s when I realised it. The others at the table were talking just as loudly. The people at other tables were talking loudly too. We could even hear the horns from outside. But I was the only one being made to shut up.
It took me back to many, many years ago. I had a boyfriend/friend who was a lot like me — gregarious, popular, enjoying attention and revelling in it. He was fun to be around. He said I was fun too. But when we started dating, something new came up in our conversations. It was the word SHHHH, alternated only by SHUT UP. It even led to some truly terrible fights.
Fast forward memory. A friend telling me that I should wear more muted colours, and oh, lower your voice please, it is considered very ill-bred to speak so loudly.
And finally back to present where I realised that the man who had asked me to SHHH had gone silent. I realised he didn’t have a lot to say. But he wouldn’t let me speak either. I tried again, this time a bit more watchful. Entering conversations, starting one with the person sitting across. And there, as I had anticipated, it came again.
“SHHH!!!! Everyone is looking at us!!”
“Where?” I asked him, “Who is looking at us? Who can hear us in this bedlam?”
He fumbled at that, obviously taken aback as he realised we weren’t sitting in the Queen’s court. Before he could come up with an answer, one of the other men added,
“THE OTHERS ARE LOUDER THAN WE ARE!”
Our man nodded but offered up a feeble,
“But…if someone complains…?”
Now here is the thing. I don’t like being apologetic for my existance. I find it hard to respect people who are apologetic for theirs. And it’s infuriating for someone to be apologetic on my behalf. It is obnoxious and degrading.
I don’t think this man any more than the boy I dated all those years ago, realises he is doing this. I chalk it down to yet another one of those sins men commit against women, while talking loudly about how much they respect women — mansplaining, interrupting, gaslighting and just not taking us seriously. Shutting women down is yet another of those things that men seem to do instinctively in our culture, without realising they’re doing it. This man is a nice guy and my friend. But he did not dare to or care to shut down any of the others at our table or at the other tables. The guy I dated had no qualms being the OTT foghorn himself but he had a big problem with his girlfriend being the same.
I am not arguing for obnoxious behaviour. I am displeased when a stranger complains or asks me to be quiet because I’m disturbing them in a public place. But I apologize and comply with their request. Because that’s a stranger and in a place like a library, bookshop or a movie, I have no call disturbing them. But shutting me down in a raucous environment, especially when the same muffling isn’t happening on the men around, is not acceptable.
I am a woman with an opinion and a loud voice. I don’t feel the need to apologize for that. And if it embarasses a man, he probably has no business hanging around me.