Thursday, February 4, 2010


I was just thinking about frightening things - I am working on a comic about nightmares with a chapter on being terrified into silence. I watched a documentary about selective mutism on the bbc iplayer for research, and thought: whew, I really can imagine that, finding yourself unable to speak even though you can.

I was terrified of speaking as a child (although I did speak). I find it kind of strange if people can't imagine being unable to speak, at least some of the time...

Back then I was very chatty at home, but I just couldn't speak to strangers for a time. It wasn't shyness, it felt like weird animal noises would come out of my mouth if I'd said anything to anyone's face and that would be the end of the world then. I could have slapped them on demand or given them flowers - but speaking: no way.

One day I decided to just ask the next stranger I passed on my way back from school a question. I stopped when I saw a man doing some gardening and without allowing myself any further thought I hollered at him full tilt: "Can you tell me where the nearest bin is please because I need to throw away my chewing gum!"
He frowned at me and turned his back. "Hello? Hello?" I shouted, just because I could, and he went back indoors, probably thinking something about those young offenders starting earlier all the time. I skipped all the way back home because I was so happy... because the first thing that had come into my head had actually been totally stupid, and I'd shouted it like a fool, and that guy had disliked me for it, and it could hardly have been worse and it was ok.
But I often had to trick myself into talking even after that. Sometimes in class I got around it by just calling into the room ("Does anyone have a tissue?") instead of talking to whoever sat next to me. Or else I just concentrated on how funny it was that the other people had no idea what an achievement it was that I was talking to them at all, and how they'd never know.

In fact, one reason I moved to the UK was that I thought: well, speaking English is no big problem, no one expects me to be good at that for starters.

These days, I've pretty much forgotten about feeling scared. Except when I have to give lectures. But I manage anyway. Hah! And still I'm always thinking: funny, I am standing here feeling like all the words in the world might rush back into my mouth and make my head explode, and all you see is someone standing there saying "...Hello!"

Anyway, enough about me already, I recommend the documentary, I liked it very much and I don't normally enjoy that sort of thing.


Candice Hartsough McDonald said...

i know exactly what you mean about the fear of speaking to people. i've had that issue all my life, too. i still feel it a little bit, and sort of have a problem with talking too quietly? i'll follow your lead and try to shout!

ren said...

whew, it's good to hear i'm not alone. it's never been as extreme as selective mutisum, but yep, me too. not only am i/was i sometimes afraid to speak, sometimes i just don't like to. in college i once spent an evening forcing myself to knock on dorm room doors and talk to the person who answered, i started by asking if they had any ice, and i did ok. but it wasn't fun.

i also tend to have a problem commenting on blog posts. this is me trying to get over it. ha!

Viviane Schwarz said...

Ha! Yes, there are a lot of quiet people, one just doesn't hear as much about them (obviously).

I've always had problems with many children that way because they don't understand when to stop because I find it incredibly hard to authoritatively say "no". I'm the sort of person who quietly says "no" and smiles and hopes that they'll understand, but it always ends in them hitting me just to hear me say it again, and screaming and laughing hysterically. Alternatively, sometimes I say "So you think I'm silly, well I think you're silly too, I wouldn't dress like you either for example" to which they tend to reply very seriously "my mother dresses me, who's dressing you?" but at least it generally calms things down.

I've got better at getting rid of men who follow me about in the street going "Let's go for a drink! Why not? Heyy why not? Why not?" after I noticed that I didn't actually have to reply to that (and replying to "why not?" is hardly ever easy, because most of the time it feels rude to be honest).

Talking is such a complicated business, everything you say potentially changes things in all sorts of ways, and there are so many different ways of speaking. It's amazing how it comes naturally to so many people.

Anyway, yeah, shouting is fun sometimes!

Viviane Schwarz said...

(I am of course not recommending to tell children they look silly, which is a very cruel thing to do in almost every context! This is me replying to for example a bunch of neighborhood kids yelling WITCH WITCH WITCH at me with great glee.)