I've Never Been Afraid to Speak ... Before

Hard to believe, but public speaking is still the #1 fear of American adults. Twenty-five percent still list this as their biggest fear – greater than their fear of heights, bugs, snakes, drowning, blood, needles, claustrophobia and flying. As one who has taught public speaking and done a lot of it herself, I can only conclude that people afraid of public speaking might overcome that fear simply by engaging in some good instruction and coaching.

But that’s not the kind of “speaking” to which I’m referring today. I’m talking here about – well, about talking: ordinary conversation among friends and family. While we’ve always had those certain topics we tend to dance around or avoid completely (religious beliefs, gender identity,  bankruptcy, the food caught between someone’s teeth…) I have never before experienced such a climate of apprehension about simply getting our carefully considered position on the table: “I’m a conservative… I vote for progressives… I think Congress made a mistake when… I disagree with the President… I donated money to build the wall… I can’t believe this is really an emergency…”

I’m new in town at the moment. Well, that is, I’ve returned to the little city I call home after a 16-year absence, and I am cautious about even probing to find out whether my new friends and neighbors have political beliefs or affiliations. I can’t speak freely unless I know for sure I’m in a room full of people who share my political beliefs. Even as I encounter old friends now, I avoid politics. What were just differences of perspective 16 years ago might now smash a friendship to smithereens. 

That was true, however, even before I moved back home. In a much larger city, of an overall liberal bent, I kept carefully quiet in any group I didn’t know well: What were their political leanings? Might we agree or disagree and, if the latter, how ugly could things get? Better to talk about TV shows or the latest hurricane or the most recent good book.

I suspect you know just what I’m talking about, because you feel it too. I can’t imagine you don’t. Does it bother you? Do you feel, as I do, the urge to call all Americans together, ask them to sit down and be quiet, and say, “Okay, enough of this polarity. We’re going to talk this out right now and get back to being plain old Americans with differences – neighbors, friends, family, customers… friendly people, relaxed, confident that our similarities outweigh our differences.” 

Are you with me on that, or are you less optimistic it could happen? 

Now, let me ratchet it up another notch: I own this place, this Speakeasy. This is my turf – I pay the rent, and I run the place, but do you think for a minute I feel comfortable sharing my political views here? Not on your life. I can talk about good writing style and proper word choice and pronunciation – and I love those things. But can I walk out into my own Speakeasy and say, “Hey, folks, here’s what I think about what Mitch McConnell just said” or “I have an opinion about that young woman they call A.O.C.”? No way! I wouldn’t sleep at night.

And you very likely wouldn’t sit still and take it. You’d throw your food and drinks at me. You’d get riled up and start kerfuffles at your own tables. Chairs would start crashing through the Speakeasy windows, and potato chips would crunch underfoot… (Now that I think about it, these days “Speakeasy” might be the wrong name for a place where people come together.) 

I think you get the idea (and I’ll bet you have no clue what my political beliefs are, because I’ve been very cautious). But here’s the point: Are we ever going to do anything about it? How long will you be satisfied to tiptoe around in your own country, afraid to have a political opinion, reluctant to engage your fellow Americans in civil discourse (because it might quickly become uncivil)? Do you believe it’s going to fix itself? If so, would you tell me how that might look? 

Are you also afraid to speak? And, if you are, do you want to proactively decrease the polarity? Do you have a clue how we might begin? Or have you given up? Do you think it’s unfixable? I’d like to hear from you, but please, please don’t make any political commentary here. Lord knows, we can’t have that!