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Taking Up Space

Sometimes my friends interrupt me as though I’ve said nothing at all, broaching a new subject, a new train of thought. To be quiet is too often thought to be weak, and in the social climbing world of Sydney University if your voice isn’t loud enough nobody will listen, writes Natalie Buckett.

I always saw university as the forum to build your own identity. Yet since I made the move from a small town in Western Sydney to vibrant Newtown my identity has, if anything, become a little paler next to the light of the BNOCs[1] that surround me. In a world where so many find their voices, there is constant time pressure to find your own, and sing it clearly.

Yet in a kaleidoscope of different personalities, colourful and outrageous, this is no place to be intimidated. The smiling faces that hide behind the embedded hierarchies of Sydney’s clubs and societies command passivity from those eager to please. From then on the hierarchies are set and the more agreeable you are to the domineering, the more apologetic you are to the expectant and the more you listen to the loud, the more you are dismissed as a nobody.

It was only this year, my second year, that I noticed a difference in the way I was treated in comparison to my louder, taller-in-stature and more definitive-of-opinion friends.

Despite flaking from a relatively similar number of social events and seen-zoning a broadly comparative number of Facebook messages, I noticed my friends felt a sense of comfort in noting, ridiculing and condemning my actions. This was because when I was questioned, I apologised; when others were, they defended themselves.

Once sensing weakness, you are identified as prey for the predators looking to assert themselves as dominant, important and superior. You are sourced as the rare Beta to Sydney University’s plethora of Alphas, and become the object others can dominate to validate their own importance.

Once, after spending two consecutive nights at my boyfriend at the time’s house, a friend accused me of not being a good friend. After attempting to balance time more effectively, I ended up going to his house to meet his parents. After half an hour of niceties I looked down at my phone to see a flurry of texts, ‘Where are you??’, ‘Why did you ditch me for a boy you slut lol’, ‘I hate happy people.’ I was a bad friend. I spent a week apologising to her.

Most problematic is the cyclical nature of submission. In noting your hierarchical position generally, friends realise your potential as, for want of a better word, a punching bag.

A week later, a friend in the same group was enraged when I, who was supposed to be their friend, didn’t answer their question straight away because I was responding to another in conversation.

They smacked me in the back of the head, hard. My eyes embarrassingly welled with tears. Yet somehow, we both knew that I wouldn’t say anything.

Narratives of femininity have historically equated women with necessarily being agreeable and passive, and in the natural patriarchal calculus such traits become synonymous with weakness. Men specifically, or women who demonstrate the privilege of cultural security and a higher label of education, are quick to identify those who appear, ostensibly at least, less empowered. Yet there is method in their meanness, and from condemnation naturally extends the capacity for exploitation.

“You owe me 5 beers,” a friend told me when I had to RSVP ‘no’ to their birthday party for family reasons. They followed through with commitment, and because I felt guilty so did I. Until beer number 4, ‘This is kind of getting expensive!’ to which the reply was ‘Oh my god, it was just a joke!’ Because it wasn’t just guilt that kept me quiet, the option to defend one’s self is always a risky one.

The clever tendency of those seeking to assert themselves is to frame everything as a joke. The natural corollary of this is that any attempt to defend yourself ensures you’re naturally uptight; either way you feel imprisoned in silence.

Capitalising on the timidity and self- doubt of others has always been the easiest route to assert your position of superiority, and reinforce the sense of inferiority that plagues others.

Importantly, I make this complaint from an incredibly white perspective. Far more problematic than my social struggles is the capacity for this subtle form of sexism to intersect with racism, ableism and other forms of discrimination, pinpointing any potential insecurity and utilising it for their own gain. I see it happen to friends every day.

As I conclude this article, I feel plagued by its moaning tone, but as I ponder the effects of being quiet, I wonder if my fear of complaint is just an internalised understanding that women shouldn’t take up discursive spaces with their ‘little problems’.

And that’s why the disadvantages of being quiet and passive aren’t just trivi- al. The first impacts I notice may just be that I get paid back a little less for Uber rides, and I am interrupted a little more in dinner conversations. And suffer the occasional blow to the head.

However, in writing this article and drawing on the experiences of my sim- ilarly socialised sister and friends I see that the extent of loss is so much greater than I initially thought.

Those who listen and observe the world around them often have the most diverse and beautiful perspectives to offer on it.

Yet as long as their voices don’t resonate with the same volume as everyone else’s, they will forever struggle to be heard.


[1] “Big Name on Campus” – a label used by some at Sydney University to suggest notoriety or fame, particularly in student politics.

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