Editing Like a Woman

by Lucinda Nelson Dhavan

I may be a slow learner, emotionally, but I was well into middle age before it hit me that I didn't have to say everything I felt like saying. I could wait until the time was right.

First, let me go back a bit. Growing up in America, I was the quiet type, a bit shy and reluctant to speak up. When I came to India I realized that I did not need to be so restrained. My parents, New Englanders transplanted to the Midwest, thought speaking forcefully was self-indulgent. You had no right to impose your feelings on others in the house, whether the feeling was anger or silly glee. You expressed yourself softly, shared jokes in a civil fashion and argued with logic, not heat.

U.R. Sure to Find Enclosed Advice OK
U.R. Sure to Find Enclosed Advice OK
Art Print

When I got to college, of course, I found out this was not normal. My classmates were more likely to call it "emotional constipation," not a very attractive description. I did my best to learn to "let it all hang out," among friends.

But families were different. I thought the glue that held families together must be reticence, that families were reluctant to shout at each other, until I discovered that many large, diverse Indian families often had the most uproarious discussions. Aunts and uncles gathered around the dinner table could shout, vent, stalk out, and still get together again the following Sunday. Some families even discussed politics and religion, declaiming opposing views at the top of their lungs, yet still seemed to love each other. They agreed to disagree.

People in the United States are probably more relaxed now, but in my youth, issues such as long hair, bare feet, being a Democrat, or refusing to go to church could destroy a family. When differences came out into the open, things fell apart. If you had rogue thoughts, silence was expected, from which others could assume that you agreed with them, and the calm business of life could move on undisturbed. I imagine there were, and are, families in America that respected dissent, and families in India that insisted on conformity. But my experience was that fighting and making-up in families was more or less the favorite Punjabi indoor sport, while Americans practiced the silent smile, even if it was often ironic, or forced.

Having learned to speak up, I did quite a bit of it. Becoming a journalist encouraged an endless flow of opinions. Those op-ed columns had to be filled, after all, reviews written. Editors had to decide in an instant what was worthy of publishing; reporters always formed attitudes toward their stories, which became clearer to them when they repeatedly tried to suppress them.

Then becoming a parent stimulated the flow of advice. What mother does not want to tell her children the best way of doing everything? It's necessary, at first, and can become a habit.

There's an advertisement on Indian television for a cell phone plan that gives unlimited talk time. It suggests that Indians will now be able to give in to a national urge to advise each other on marital and lifestyle problems because it will be so cheap to do so by cell phone. The ad struck a chord with many here because advice is something that flows like mother's milk in this land of milk and honey. Everyone seems to be advising everyone else about how to manage their budgets; raise their children; keep their hair healthy; what to wear; what to eat; what sort of yoga to do. When I arrived in India, my tongue found its spiritual home; I could speak like an expert on any subject.

I can't remember when I realized that no one was listening.

Let me illustrate with a hypothetical situation: let's say you have a colleague who has the habit of calling the boss by his first name—albeit with a suffix meaning "elder brother," this being an Indian situation—and occasionally recalling the fun things she did with their mutual gang of friends when they were in college. The colleague doesn't notice the stony silence that greets this innocent babbling around the news desk, where other staff members, who refer to the boss only as "Sir," grind their teeth.

I'm guessing that, in this situation, you might want to tell this deluded colleague that parading her friendship with the boss undermines the working atmosphere and makes it harder for her to get anything done in the office, while at the same time she is making enemies.

Would she listen?

During the first months of employment, when she felt the power of her new status and paycheck, she probably would not. Riding the wave of optimism, she'd shrug off the advice and go on chattering. Her bubbly personality hating to be bottled up, she'd probably think any advice of this sort stemmed from jealousy or sour grapes.

In the next few months, though, when she began to feel the pricks of sarcasm, anger, and rejection from the guys at the desk, she might be ready to listen to sage counsel. Sadly, people are ready to listen and understand advice only after damage has happened. Until then, advice sounds boring, cautious, or just stupid.

Or take another situation: Imagine that a friend of yours is suffering the visit of her in-laws for a month. She is not happy with this invasion of her space and starts drawing boundaries immediately. "We eat cereal for breakfast . . . we just put everything in the dishwasher . . . we take a walk at this time . . . " With a determined look, she goes through the day making announcements about the way she usually does everything. She wants to ward off comments from the in-laws about their habits. She hates advice and comparison.

So do the in-laws. Hurt by what feels like rejection, they withdraw into themselves. Their son is troubled by the transformation in his cheerful, outgoing parents and begins to see his wife as self-centered and hard-hearted. They begin to fight.

From the beginning, you may have wanted to tell this friend that the visit didn't have to be so hard. She could go on doing things her own way and deal with any criticism as it came—if it came. But she was in a prickly, defensive mood and would have lashed out if you'd made the suggestion then. She might not even pay attention to what you're saying, because she's so focused on resenting them, and her husband. A real mess.

The fact is, people do not understand and accept advice until the time is right, or everything has gone wrong. Advice offered at the wrong moment, can even cause resentment or a willful desire to continue the behavior.

If parenting teaches us to give excessive advice, it also teaches us to hold our tongues, in time. When children become young adults there are times when the most random comment may be taken badly. For instance, if you tell the adult child that you feel like some nice dal-roti with lots of butter on it for dinner, it may sound to the adult child as though you're saying she's obsessed with health and doesn't know how to cook, or entertain, or plan meals.

Parents who love their children learn to listen to the mood, before speaking.

"Think before you speak" is always good advice—frequently neglected, of course, like all the other common warnings that seem so silly until one day they hit us like revealed truth, and we wonder why all our lives we didn't understand the importance of this pithy wisdom. "Sense the mood before you speak" is also not a bad warning. "To everything there is a season" is a truth, though it just sounds like something boring that people say all the time, until you realize the seasons are within yourself, times when you can accept new thoughts and grow, and when you can't. And when you can sense the seasons in others, and remain silent or speak depending on their emotional season, not yours, then you might be heard. A time to reap, a time to sow, a time to rest . . .

I definitely was not paying attention in Sunday School or I might even have learned this from a Bible lesson and discovered that words uttered in season find a receptive heart, and work . . . like magic. Or like a very feminine sort of wisdom, the kind of thing mothers learn with time. The magic words are those spoken at the right time.

Obviously, I have not entirely gotten over my love of spouting opinions and advice. I'm writing this, after all. But with the written word, the author always hopes there may be someone in the mood to read. Writers are probably those people most filled to bursting with things to say, who have learned, in real life, to hold their tongues.

BIO: Lucinda Nelson Dhavan first went to India on a Fulbright Foundation grant, immediately after graduating from College. She's still there. After several years on the staff of a regional newspaper, she feels she may have learned enough to write fiction. She is polishing a collection of short stories and working on a novel. Contact Lucinda at: ldhavan@yahoo.co.in

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