Speaking Rights


When I have something to say, people usually listen. This isn’t by right or reason: I owe a lot of speaking time to culture privilege, opportunity, and an excess of initiative. I was a teenager when I first noticed how readily my words were accepted as authoritative. After enough instances of others being lead astray by taking my impressions as fact, I realised that I needed to be clear about what I knew and what I “figured”. That was followed by an awkward period of sentences saturated (and often burst) by qualifying phrases.

With experience, I’ve worked out better ways of keeping my claims in check but under the interrogation lamp, I would have to admit that I get credited with knowing more than that for which I can provide references. Of course, people rarely ask and that is what has me worried. I’m not out there making stuff up all the time or lying to peoples’ faces; there is usually some reasoning to fall back on. But still, why is it that I am rarely questioned (directly) when my words try to invite scepticism?

A prof gave me a clue following a presentation for which I was underprepared. He suggested that he trusted my research because I confidently voiced claims about what other people thought. Pretending to know the minds of others is a dangerous game, but it’s one I can’t stop playing. For all that I can pass as logical math girl, most of my analytical experience comes from trying to understand people and how they interact. This means a lot of my cognitive metaphors for strength of argument or association include a human face, posture or tone of voice. A new fact has a much better chance at staying in my head if I can append an impression of how people feel about it, and when I am explaining something on the fly, I often share both kinds of information.

Lucky for me, a lot of people like a sprinkling of emotional references on top of an otherwise dry discussion of time series. Humans, as a species, seem to remember socially-weighted data preferentially. Using a power-dynamics metaphor in  a presentation is not a bad things, nor is mentioning the humanity of those who generated the relevant information. Instead, the danger lies in the accuracy of these potentially subjective details and the authority it may bring to the speaker. I may be quick to read inter-human dynamics in research papers, but facility does not ensure accuracy (who hasn’t gone from fuming indignation to sheepishly agreement on a second reading? ) And if listeners are more trusting of socially charged statements, taking it to be a sign of intimacy with the topic, this may prevent proper scrutiny of ideas being shared.

I’m not inclined to desiccate my speech of feeling; it would probably be more painful than my accuracy binge of the late nineties. Nor am I likely to stop thinking in social terms. I guess the best I can do is take some more care with the statements exiting my mouth and stay conscious of how they reflect on me as well as the subject. Honestly, I don’t want any extra authority; I’ve got more than my fair share of speaking rights as is.


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