But, I mean…

[Cross-posted from my Tumblr, In Search of the Happiness Max.]

Virginia Woolf’s seminal essay, A Room of One’s Own, which I come back to again and again when I see in myself and others the struggle to engage in intellectual pursuits whilst beset by poverty and the impossibility of peace and quiet and the room to fully develop complex thoughts, starts with an unusual word:


But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction—what, has that got to do with a room of one’s own?

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own

It is an essay that starts with a conjunction. It is an essay that starts with an interruption. It embodies how opressers (especially white men) constantly seek to cut the less privileged off before they get started. She has only given the title of her lecture and already her interlocutor has cut in to object. Wants to argue that she hasn’t understood the question. Devalues her right to speak. To have been invited to talk on women and fiction in the first place.

After all, she is only a woman who writes fiction. What could she have to say? How could her thought about the room possibly be something she could explain to be relevant. The connection is not immediately obvious (before she has explained it) so it could not possibly contain a ‘nugget of truth’.

And at the same time as embodying her interlocutor’s aggression and silencing, it is also her word, the word with which she begins her essay.

It expresses how women are constantly battling to find a voice. To force a wedge into conversation from which we have been excluded.

The combination reminds me of a man I once knew who became incredibly angry with me, because he perceived that I was always interrupting him. Which was not true. What would happen would be that I would start a sentence, he would interrupt me before I had completed my thought, and then when I sought to complete my thought – or (very frequently) correct the assumption he had made about what I had been trying to say (he almost unfailingly assumed I was trying to say something very simplistic, something he could easily debunk) – he would become furious that I had been so rude as to interrupt him.

I was both interrupted before I could fairly get started, and having to interupt to find a way back into the conversation.

Because men don’t make room for women to talk in the pauses between their sentences.

I watched this same man constantly allow other men to talk over him. He would begin a sentence and then stop when another man started talking. He would attempt to interject in another man’s talk and acquiesce entirely unruffled when the other man pressed on to complete his thought.

My problem was twofold: a) I listen when other people want to join a conversation and allow them to speak, to voice counterpoints; and b) he would not permit me to complete a thought the way he would another man.

And thus it is for women to attempt to speak and voice our thoughts and get them out whole. So too, I think, with other people who are oppressed, in the presence of those with privilege over them. Although, it is a complex thing. A gay white man may still talk over a woman; a disabled white man may find himself ignored completely, and so on. Privilege and oppression are not a single axis.

People who have been marginalised are perceived as being at the edges of conversations. Always butting in. Even when they sit at the very centre of the issue. Even when they have been asked to talk on that issue.

And what intrigues me is the language we see evolving, especially in places where the less privileged feel more free to talk and to experiment with language.

I find it with my own writing. I take a conversational tone on my blog, and somehow that winds up with me starting a lot of my posts with ‘So,’. There’s no need for it. In formal writing this would be a faux pas. Drop the filler word and just make your statement. Not ‘So, there was this thing I was watching the other day’; rather: ‘I was watching x’.

But that filler word is important in the speech of marginalised people. It’s how we get our foot in the door. It’s very rare that we simply be allowed to speak, just because we want to. ‘So’, ‘But’, ‘And’, ‘I mean’, these are ways of us interjecting without immediately launching into the thought no one wants to hear. The thought we need a breath to formulate when people aren’t talking over us. These ways of beginning are often labelled as ‘weak’. But Virginia knew the truth.

These aren’t things that weaken our language. These are tools we use to crowbar our way into getting heard.

And it’s not just my idiosyncrasy. Tumblr, renowned (or notorious, depending on one’s perspective) for social justice, is full of people beginning posts with ‘I mean’, ‘OK, but’ and ‘But what if’ – as though they were entering an existing conversation, rather than starting a post fresh. And where in a conversation with an oppressor such terms can make you feel weak, on Tumblr they are lighthearted, freeing.

I do think they reflect the patterns of talk of people who are used to joining conversations in an underconfident way, but they are not taken as underconfident in that context. They are taken as reflective of the fact that on Tumblr we are in conversation. Not a literal back and forth (the platform is uniquely poorly set up for that, as a form of social media) but an evolving exchange of ideas between people who are not being interupted. You say as much or as little as you want in your post, and people engage, for the most part, by reblogging or liking that post – by spreading your thoughts, rather than interrupting or smothering them.

It’s also part of the linguistic signalling that identifies Tumblr users as part of a group. Dispite the fact that it is an unusually diverse group. That’s how we talk, here. It goes along with the linguistic ticks of using no punctuation or capitalisation to suggest a certain tone. And it’s done in the presence of people who rejoice in language and provide fascinating analyses of the evolving syntax with which we are engaging.

If I start a post with ‘I mean’ on Tumblr, I know I’m not likely to be judged for it, because everyone there knows what I’m doing. They speak the lingo. They are already listening. They are a part of my conversation and they have decided to let me talk.

It’s a powerful thing. Turning the brokenness of being constantly interrupted into strength and community.

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