Put your hand on the dial and turn up the volume, he said.
Unlike many people, I have a difficult time with chit-chat and establishing the bond commonly known as friendship. The reasons for this are long and understandable. But the result is that I have few close friends, and the friends that I do have don’t call me up for fun very often. I am not really what you would call a “fun” guy.
For the most part I do not feel alone. I enjoy my time spent reading books, exploring the internet and cuddling with my girlfriend and our eight-year-old pug. But lately I have been feeling the lack of social interaction. I feel it holds me back, not only in my personal life but also in my professional one. There’s nothing small about small talk. Building bonds, connecting on a human level, that’s what business is built on. We seek out people who we can identify with. Those are the people we want to work with.
So what do you do when the volume is so low that you don’t register on most people’s frequency level? You can’t wait forever for someone to quiet down enough to hear the low hum of your voice. The world is a noisy place, and unless you want to wallow in loneliness and obscurity, you need to turn up that dial. You need to make yourself vulnerable.That’s the thing: more volume means more exposure. Even in those small moments of “harmless” banter.
I wasn’t always this way. I remember a time when I spoke my truth quite happily. I couldn’t have been older than 4 years old, for example, when I had my first taste of political discourse. I remember the reaction of the man I was speaking to. He was a tall black man, a gardener to my parents when we still lived in the interior of South Africa, in a city called Bloemfontein. My father was a professor at the local university, and my mother was a housewife and mother of three.
I looked up at this large black man with the dark brown eyes and I said, with a child’s clarity, what even I could see at the age of 4: you will never be rich because you are black. The man’s somber eyes turned bright with rage; he reached down to grab me. Terrified, I ran across the lawn, the large man following me briefly, before he stopped and I disappeared into the relative safety of our house.
That might have been my first lesson in the power of words. That is, that sometimes it’s better not to speak your thoughts out loud. It’s one of the childhood memories that have stuck with me most. Again and again, I have run into this conflict in my life: speak up and incur the wrath of your audience, or keep quiet and blend into the background, where you are forgotten. Finding a balance, of speaking just the right amount of truth? That isn’t a skill I’ve managed to master yet.
The truth is this: The same drive that prevents me from initiating conversations with strangers in the elevator on my way to work is the same instinct that keeps me from truly embracing my own life. Maladaptive instincts, like habits, are hard to break. But I know I have to if I want to keep growing as a person. If I want to be the person I believe myself capable of being.
It’s the vulnerability that scares me. The exposure, like an open wound, to rays of scorching sun and eyeballs searing their judgments into my pale, sensitive skin. But vulnerability is strength too. Or, at least, the knowing of where you are vulnerable. And how can you know where those spots actually are unless you let them see the light of day?
I think I’m getting to a place where I feel more comfortable turning up the volume – just a crack. But I may have to practice a while mastering the art of finding the right spot on the dial before I truly feel OK. We each deserve to be heard; that I believe. Even when what we say isn’t pretty. Figuring out how to be heard in a way that has a positive impact, that inspires meaningful change – that’s the real challenge.
In the meantime, let’s open the curtains and breathe.