Should I speak up or stay silent?

What happens when people stay silent in situations where they ought to speak up? The author gives a not-so-subtle warning

Man removing tape off mouth, speak up

Have you ever walked out of the restroom during a wedding reception with a bunch of toilet paper trailing down your backside and dragging along the ground behind you? And you go back on the dance floor, smiling and drinking, oblivious to the giggles, pointing and hushed whispers around you?

Yeah, me neither. I would have never let something like that happen to me last year with my friends promptly posting it on social media. Because that would be embarrassing. Especially if they took another picture of you watching yourself on YouTube and you’re not comprehending the fact that you still have toilet paper hanging off of you as you watch the video of yourself with toilet paper hanging off of you.

However, if it had happened to me, and I’m not saying it did, but if it did, why didn’t anyone tell me before the citizen paparazzi went crazy? If it were my friend walking around with a tissue tail I would have said something right away, and I’m sure you would have, too. Which is why I like you so much, but these other weirdos, have they no compassion? Does their desire for a viral yet ephemeral YouTube video trump saving their friend from a lifetime of digital humiliation?

I strongly believe that this world would be a better place if more people spoke up

Powdered doughnuts? Never again!

And then there was the incident that also may or may not have happened to me when I returned to work after a two-week vacation. I walked into the conference room for our daily staff meeting with my huge cup of coffee and noticed no one was talking. The room was thick with hanging heads in business suits and I blurted out through a mouthful of powdered doughnut, perhaps a little louder [and powderier] than necessary, “Hey, who died?”

How much would it have cost someone to send me a text or email about a colleague’s freak circus accident prior to my return? Again, I can neither confirm nor deny that it actually happened to me personally, because again, that would be humiliating, but really, people! Is one lousy heads-up message too much to ask? Do you have any idea how difficult it is to work with a cubicle mate who isn’t speaking to you any more? Do you know I can barely eat my morning ritualistic powdered doughnut without choking on it?

And all because people don’t speak up when they should.

My friendly neighbour

Helga is my next-door neighbour. She wears long robes and keeps a big kettle of boiling stuff on the stove all the time, stirring it occasionally. I can see right into her living room from my kitchen window. She’s a nice lady, has never spoken ill of anyone and has always been kind to me. She also has a pet raven named Edgar Allen Poe.

Periodically, a nosy neighbour will try to report Helga to the authorities as a witch. She never confirms or denies it because she doesn’t think it’s anyone’s business what she does in the privacy of her own home.

Periodically, a nosy neighbour will try to report Helga to the authorities as a witch

I happen to know she’s not a witch, but she asked me not to comment to anyone one way or the other because they don’t deserve to have their accusations dignified with denials. “It’s the principle of the thing,” she says. “It’s none of their business what I do.”

I once tried to persuade her otherwise, but then a weird tingling sensation shot through my brain. When I got off her kitchen floor, and a concerned Helga asked me if I was okay, I felt nothing but a soft compassion for her and couldn’t believe I was trying to talk her into betraying her own principles.

The neighbour kids throw eggs at her house. They ring her doorbell and run away. They taunt her when she is outside tending to the fragrant herbs on her dilapidated front porch. They make fun of her gardening attire and go around town talking about the tall, black and pointy thing on her head. But those kids are wrong. Helga’s gardening hat is more of a dark navy blue.

She says they leave nasty gifts on her doorstep. Last week I saw her unwrap a package while we were in her kitchen and when she saw me looking, she quickly stuffed it away.

“Was that an eye of newt?” I asked.

“Can you believe what they leave on my porch?” She shook her head and laughed, but I could tell those kids had hurt her feelings because she sneaked a look in my direction, to see if I could see her eyes turning red, as if about to cry.

“Where does one get an eye of newt?” I asked.

She just shrugged her shoulders and slipped the box into a cupboard. “You can get anything on the internet these days,” she said. “Would you like some tea?”

Helga won’t speak up to deny all the accusations or prove them wrong, and I’m sure she’s suffering because of it. I see her from my kitchen window pacing back and forth in her living room at 3am, reading a huge ancient book that looks too heavy for her to carry. Probably a bible, and how many witches do you know that read a bible, huh? Exactly.

I can see her mumbling as she paces, no doubt because of persecution anxiety, the poor thing. If Helga would just talk to the neighbours, I’m sure everyone would realise that it’s all a misunderstanding.

Speaking up is good

What I’m trying to say is, I strongly believe that this world would be a better place if more people spoke up.

And now if you’ll excuse me, I promised Helga I’d teach her how to brush her unruly hair. Then she wants me to help her when Mr. Jasmine shows up this evening to appraise her exotic broom collection. I bet it’s worth a lot. Some of those sticks are over 500 years old.

A version of this was first published in the October 2015 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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