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Information and education about psychology, gender, and trauma.

Advice and reflections on writing, research, and life in academia. 

Posts written by Dr. Jem Tosh and Dr. Lucy Thompson. 

When you get laughed at for making the meeting awkward :/

by Dr. Jem Tosh

(content warning: one very brief mention of s*xual assault)

I was having a non-verbal morning in a meeting this week where I felt uncomfortable for many reasons, but mostly because the structure didn't work well with how I communicate (which is fairly typical of my experience in academia), and I had more of these meetings than usual so that discomfort had accumulated. I was put on the spot to speak and I struggled to do so. One participant laughed and commented on how awkward the silence was. It was only seconds of silence, but I noticed long ago that to cross social norms in academic settings takes very little (thanks to my work supporting autistic students at university). I felt embarrassed. I'm comfortable with silence and there are plenty of times where I actually prefer it. It doesn't feel awkward to me, it feels peaceful. I also appreciate that there can be many reasons why a person might take longer than others to begin speaking (such as those who stutter).

I was put on the spot to speak and I struggled to do so. One participant laughed and commented on how awkward the silence was.

This isn't a call-out of that individual, because it's the kind of thing that happens so frequently in these spaces and by so many that the underlying issue is rarely explicitly visible or known. Its so frequent in fact, that I've been thinking for a while that I should write this post. Rather than continue to experience that discomfort in meetings, or disengage and miss out on experiences and opportunities that I want to pursue, I'm learning to sit with the discomfort of asking for what I need instead and advocating on behalf of myself (something I'm generally very good at doing for others).

The meetings this week were outside of the psygentra bubble. It's made the difference between how I run groups and sessions and those that conform to the 'norms' of academia very stark, particularly in terms of accessibility. I found some of these meetings difficult and I didn't engage like my usual very-engaging self. At its worst, I left feeling shame about who I am and how I communicate - despite being a very skilled communicator. Communicating in groups is a big part of my job and has been for sometime. I've spent over two decades developing my ability to speak in front of other people so that I could lecture and present before large audiences with confidence and participate actively in committees, departments, and organisations. I remember after my first book launch someone coming up to tell me that someday they wanted to be able to speak like I did - perhaps not realising just how much I was masking to 'fit in' with academia at the time.

Putting people in a position where they have to choose between being excluded and masking isn't really much of a choice, is it?

This is more than being anxious about public speaking, it's about being neurodivergent* and having to overcome or tolerate ableist norms in academic spaces (that are also often white and colonial norms too). They are structures and expectations that others may not consider or see a problem with, because it's not a problem for them personally. It can be difficult to understand or acknowledge things that are outside of our own experience and context unless we specifically seek that knowledge and understanding.

So, here are some of the ways that I make my meetings more inclusive and accessible. The more of these changes you incorporate into your spaces, the more I can engage with you and the work that you do, and the less I will have to mask and recover from your meeting, workshop, conference, or seminar etc.