When I was in grad-school, I had a group therapy instructor who was from Taiwan. The course content was interesting in of itself, but what made the class even more fascinating was my instructor’s unique cultural perspective. I specifically remember her talking about how she had never heard of someone being concerned about “sounding stupid” until she moved to the United States in her early 20’s. For the first few decades of her life, it had never dawned on her to worry about how she sounded when she talked, nor did it occur to her that others ever did so either.
The whole idea of sounding stupid simply wasn’t a part of her cultural upbringing, and when she first heard it being expressed in the U.S., she thought there was some sort of break down in translation. But there wasn’t. The words could be translated literally, which baffled her. How terrible, she thought, to worry about whether you are sounding stupid, smart, or somewhere in between. Her approach was to say what’s on her mind, be willing to make mistakes, and be thankful for the interaction.
As an American, I was all sorts of twisted. I couldn’t believe that the fear of sounding stupid was a cultural construct. It seemed like it was a natural part of the human condition. Nope, not the case. It was a cultural message that I had picked up and internalized, and for the first time, I realized that if I happened to be born in a different part of the world, this fear may have never crossed my mind.
It’s probably been 7 years or so since I took that course, but I still think about that particular lecture from time to time. To this day, I really appreciate my instructor’s refreshing perspective about saying what’s on your mind and being willing to make mistakes, but in the spirit of the Thanksgiving holiday, I want to narrow the focus to that last piece of advice—be thankful for the interaction. In fact, I think this might be the remedy to the “sounding stupid” phenomenon.
It seems quite obvious to me that the fear of sounding stupid stems from performance anxiety, social comparison, and excessive self-criticism. No wonder why anxiety disorders are on the rise and people feel more isolated than ever before. But we can work through this. We just have to figure out a way to think about human interaction differently, which is where gratitude comes into play.
Consider this. Instead of being so concerned about how we sound, what if gratitude was on the forefront of our minds when interacting with others? To lead with a sense of thanks would fundamentally alter our social experiences. It would take the edge off and reduce our need to sound smart, be liked, or to make the perfect impression. It would help us listen more and free up mental energy so that we are more likely to say what we want, how we want.
All we got to do is be thankful for the interaction! Okay, maybe I’m oversimplifying this. Then again, maybe not. Some may wonder what there is to be thankful for. Here are some ideas: to hear someone else’s perspective, curiosity, the opportunity to express yourself, to learn about someone else, the sharing of minds, another human being taking interest in you, etc. The list could go on and on.
So, here’s an experiment to try. The next time you interact with someone, approach the conversation with a sense of gratitude, and pay attention to what happens. Does the pressure fall away? Do you feel less constrained? Or maybe nothing at all? Regardless, give it a shot. Just for fun. If it works, we might be on to something.