How To Respond When A Man Tries To Silence You

by JR Thorpe
Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Ever been shut up, shut out, shouted down, interrupted, or conversationally bulldozed by a dude? Most of us have. Sometimes it's a date, other times it's a colleague, a sibling, a family member, or some random man who thinks we're doing something wrong. There are instances where being told to shut up is kind of fair (if you're talking in a movie theater, for instance, or creating a ruckus at 2 a.m. when people are trying to sleep). Others, however, are not legit, as with Mitch McConnell's now-legendary attempt to silence Elizabeth Warren in her pursuit of reading a Coretta Scott King letter against the nomination of Jeff Sessions for Attorney-General. Warren defiantly read the letter aloud anyway, outside the Senate's doors. McConnell's actions ironically drew massive attention to Warren, the letter, and what on earth he was trying to pull in the first place.

But if you're not a senator and don't have the benefit of C-SPAN to help you out, what can you do? There are good conversational strategies to deal with men who just want to shut you down, for whatever reason: to interrupt you, talk over your point, say you're wrong, or just stop you talking entirely. And no, none of them involve yelling FREE SPEECH in anybody's face, though you can resort to that as a last-ditch measure.

"No, I'm Not Sorry"

This is a conversational gambit generally hammered into women: apologize automatically, or couch things in a reconciliatory fashion when you're trying to assert yourself so as not to be seen as "aggressive." Women, when it comes to public speaking or moving past the interrupting stage, are conditioned repeatedly to be diplomatic, because "aggression" is seem as unbecoming in women. This is despite the fact that women have been shown, in repeated studies, to be on the serving end of interruptions by men across the board, particularly in group or professional situations. We're always supposed to respond with equanimity.

Catch your instinct to apologize or diminish your response. Interrupt right back, and refuse to give up rightfully earned conversational space. And do not act sorry for it, because you don't have to be.

"It's My Turn Now"

You'd think we'd all learned in preschool that you wait your turn until it's time to speak. Unfortunately, though, that's not the way things often go, and it does involve problems along gender lines. (Surprise.)

A study in 2013, for instance, found that women are much more OK with taking turns in conversation with other women, while men in conversation with other men tend to dominate and overlap. In that atmosphere, being competitive and assertive about your right to your space of speech may be paramount. Expose their efforts to silence you as unjust: they may want to talk, or think you've taken up enough space, but this is your time, and they can have theirs when you're done. It's a matter of respect.

"It Will Wait"

Is what they want so desperately important that it needs to be said right now? Are they on fire? Is a tsunami coming? If you're in a space where competitive arguments are part of the point — say, a meeting where you're discussing the merits of something — then it's good argumentative practice to point out, coolly, that there's no emergency, and simply continue with your point.

If, however, they aren't attempting to interrupt you with a burning point of their own but would just rather you'd shut up, this may not be a good gambit, because it implies they have some valid conversational objection instead of simply being rude.

"As I Was Saying..."

Part of the "problem" with patterning aggression onto female speech in any way is that it's read either as too masculine or as too feminine, neither of which is acceptable. This happens constantly to assertive CEOs and other female bosses who have to retain control of situations and demand respect.

As Forbes pointed out in 2013, the woman who's assertive can either look as if she's patterning herself on male behavior, or open herself up to the criticism of being "too emotional" through showing passion about her subject (or about not being interrupted by a jackass). Welcome to the tightrope of female communication. It's a ridiculous situation, but an interesting one to navigate: if a man is trying to silence or shout you down, simply continuing to talk is likely the best possible way to react, in any way that you can. A response is, by definition, an engagement, and if you don't have to engage, then don't; it makes them look utterly irrelevant.

Assert Your Body As Well As Your Voice

There are many different ways in which we can place our ownership over a space, and research published in the Wall Street Journal in 2016 found something very interesting about female body language and power. It's vocally, the scientists noted, that a lot of power-play and sexist assumption comes around to hurt female speakers: shouting or screaming to get a point across, for instance.

They found, however, that women who use assertive body language as leaders are often rated as persuasive rather than penalized. Leaning into somebody, standing tall and proud, raising your voice in response to an attempt to silence you, and making the first move to talk again once somebody has stopped are all seen as dominant rather than necessarily "problematic" traits. Use that to your advantage. Don't be defeated by some idiot trying to shut you down. Talk over him, stand your ground, and stand as straight as you can.