Before I came to college, I thought of myself as a pretty opinionated person. While I wasn’t on a debate team or a member of a political organization, I’d done some thinking about my convictions, both large and small and was pretty confident I could articulate them if need be. When I got to Columbia, however, I soon realized that I was nowhere near as good at communicating my opinions as I thought. From NSOP week onward, I was surrounded by people who had much more experience speaking their minds than I did, and when they asked me “What do you think?” about some pressing issue, my answer usually wasn’t a stunning masterpiece of rhetoric. More often than not, I stammered and tried to synthesize my thoughts into a few sentences—but by the time I turned this into something vaguely resembling my opinion, the other person had stopped listening. I had to face the facts: I was great at knowing what I believed, but communicating it to other people? Not so much.
At first, I shrugged this off. Did it matter that much if I couldn’t really communicate what I thought? Is there anything wrong with being seen as an un-opinionated person? On a campus with a history of social activism, where comment sections get heated and political groups get controversial, it seemed like adding my opinion to the mix was just too much. Nobody would notice if a random English major with no campus clout answered “I dunno” when someone asked her what she thought about Obama. With so many passionate, articulate people surrounding me, there was no way anyone would pick my opinion out of the crowd. Surely the people who agreed with me would speak to these issues and communicate their views with a poise I couldn’t muster. People could speak for me, right?
However, as I continued to learn and get involved in student groups, I realized that this wasn’t exactly true. No matter how many people argued and debated things in larger forums, that still didn’t change the fact that my friends wanted to know what I believed. Most people think that understanding someone else’s convictions is a crucial part of getting to know them, and by shrugging off questions or mumbling my way through answers, I was keeping myself at arm’s length from my friends. Sometimes, the views I held were stereotyped or misrepresented, and it became impossible for me to stand by and refrain from clarifying or challenging these misconceptions. And other times, particularly with campus issues, I looked around and saw that while some people represented viewpoints that were similar to my own, there were also things I had noticed that no one was talking about. In other words, my voice did matter, even in a place crowded with other voices.
Accepting that I needed to put my opinions out there didn’t solve my articulation problem, though. What did? Things like writing this column. By forcing my opinions to fit in a relatively small space, be edited and proofread, and then read, mulled over and occasionally excoriated in the comments section, I learned more about the process of communicating beliefs than I would have expected. I discovered how to put my feelings into words, what made a strong argument, and how to make things compelling to others. I began to feel more confident about giving my opinion when asked for it. And while I didn’t start arguing with everyone and everything in sight, I did begin to talk about politics, religion, and the red flags on South Lawn with a minimum of mumbling.
We may be surrounded by confident, passionate people who can spout off rhetoric at a moment’s notice, but that doesn’t mean that we should leave the discussion to them. Rather, it means that we should strive to bring our own opinions forward in a compelling, articulate manner and practice speaking for ourselves. Our classes can teach how to write an essay or do a problem set, but learning how to make our opinions heard is something we have to tackle in our own time. Whether it’s through joining a debate society, arguing with that one guy in your seminar, or applying to be an opinion columnist for the Spectator, I challenge us all to practice being opinionated, so that when the time comes when we need to speak, we’ll be able to make sure we’re heard.
Kathryn Brill is a Barnard College junior majoring in English. She is a member of the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. We Should Talk runs alternate Tuesdays.