Jon Kennedy's 'Postcards from
Earning the right to speak
Jonal entry 1077 | November 12 2008
One of the great preachers I once sat under introduced the concept of "earning the right to speak." It's one of those ideas which, when I first heard the phrase used, set off bells of recognition. It was one of those "Yes!" reactions so dear to sports fans. It was something I "knew" intuitively or, in everyday parlance, "in my bones," without ever hearing it named. The preacher's point was that when you want to introduce your concept of salvation or the need for personal relationship with God, you should first do some communications groundwork with your audiencebeing cordial, feeling out "feelings" and respecting them, and suchwhether an audience of one or the congregation in a megachurch.
I was raised in a context in which certain conditions were expected of a child wanting to speak when in the company of adults. One was "don't speak until you've been spoken to." A variation of this is, "if we wanted your opinion we'd have asked," and a less-mean but still effective related one is the comment, "another precinct heard from" when a child interjectedor anyone considered inferior in age, status, or intellectoffered an opinion.
In the military, I gather from many plays I've watched, it's expected in certain situations that an enlisted man or woman or a noncommissioned soldier or sailor will preface any comment to an officer with, "Sir, permission to speak, sir!" That's an example of earning the right by humbling yourself to the higher authority, close to grovelling. In fact, it's not just in "plays" that I've observed this, it was also standard operating procedure for plebes in a novel about life at the Annapolis Naval Academy that I edited. And as the editor I got to know the "story" so well that it became apparent that this intentional humbling of the academy's underlings was a vital part of their college-level education. It prepared them for many contingencies likely to come up in military life.
So, although I don't think I ever treated my own children that way (expecting them to "earn" a right to speak before doing so), I've come to appreciate my father's trying to teach me to earn the right to speak, even if he did it by using putdowns and embarrassing me. It was an indirect way of teaching the necessity of thinking before speaking, and there are few lessons in life more valuable to learn than that.
Many public speakers, even preachers, often enhance their tacit permission to speak from their audiences by getting them to laugh first. Put them in a good mood; then you can propose anything to them without offending them, whether they're buying your "pitch" otherwise. Another effective technique is self-effacement. I'm sure many "Bushies" like myself are willing to put up with David Letterman's demeaning of our sitting President in his nightly "Great Moments in Presidential Speeches" segments by quickly following his clip of one of President Bush's speaking gaffes by saying "that's me every night; I do that same thing constantly," though he really doesn't.
On a more complex or sophisticated level, authors, stand-up comics, and raconteurs are well advised to get their audiences' "permission" to tell their stories. With novels and short stories, the main key is to create identification with your central characters. Maybe like me you can remember that when you were in elementary school, the main ingredient required to make you a fan of a TV show (whether a situation comedy like "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet" or a dramatic serial like "I Remember Mama") was just having a "kid" about your age as a major character. There are all kinds of people in just about any kind of audience, so no story will please everyone, but smart story-tellers use "universally admired traits" to build acceptance and even empathy for their characters. "Universally admired traits" is an illusion, of course, but certainly many traits are considered more positive by more people than their opposites. Being honorable and willing to put others' needs before some of your own are at the top of that list.
I think that on the subconscious level I always believed it essential to "earn the right to speak" because, in general, I'm reticent to speak in most social situations (unless I know I'm expected to speak, as when I'm teaching or participating in a committee), and especially I've been reluctant to speak to casual acquaintances about the matters that mean the most to me: my religious convictions, my philosophy of life, and my opinions on most controversial subjects. It's not that I doubt my convictions but that I doubt that I've put enough into the relationship with the other person to broach such intimate topics. I've known people who will start a conversation with a new acquaintance about their relationship with God by asking, "are you interested in spiritual matters?" the assumption being that everyone is, at least on some level. I can admire that approach, but it isn't "me"; it's taking a shortcut to someplace I feel in my bones has to be reached by a higher path.
Another side of this is that some people, I'm convinced, "grant" the right to others to speak to them, even if the others haven't laid any groundwork. They do this by being very "direct" and outspoken about their own opinions, religion, political philosophy, or other matters usually considered open for debate. So the one they're speaking to is likely to conclude there's no point in worrying about stepping on toes here, this boor has already gone beyond giving me permission to speak; s/he has forced me to speak, or dishonor myself by cowardice if I hold my peace. The trouble is, many of those "boors" think it's just fine for them to preach without realizing they're on a two-way street.