Dear Auntie Sam,
During Foundations, I said not a word in class. First I was shy, then I decided what I had to say lacked the necessary gravitas, and then I wondered whether I should even bother because we were all being graded pass/fail anyway. The result was that I spoke not at all.
A couple of the people in my Foundation classes however, seemed to think that every word that voluntarily or involuntarily escaped their lips, was a true pearl of wisdom. The misplaced self-confidence in comments was astounding to me. They even repeated things they had already said thinking, I suppose, that people had missed it the first time around.
When section began, I became a different person. I decided I wanted to talk all the time. I didn’t go so far as saying silly things repeatedly the way some of my Foundations classmates had, in my view. I only spoke when I had something of substance to say that I thought would move the class discussion a quantum leap forward. I know the professors felt they had to be equitable in calling on people, and that’s why they didn’t call on me every time I wanted to talk. So I just started speaking anyway and more often that not, no one else would start talking at the same time. Can I help it if that meant that I spoke 5-6 times every class?
I just received my class participation feedback for four of my classes this term. Each of the professors seemed to be telling me very different things. “You might think of speaking once every three classes rather than a few times in every class,” said one. “Lower frequency with greater substance,” said another particularly succinct feedback letter. A third said, “Have you noticed that none of your classmates are listening to you when you speak?” And finally, the last one said, “Just shut up for a change.” I’m sad because I suspect the professors are subtly trying to silence me. What should I do?
Airtime is Golden
Dear Airtime is Golden,
Perhaps the professors aren’t being so subtle and maybe airtime isn’t golden after all. Which part did you not get? As your classmates seem to not have been able to get through to you, the professors are doing exactly what they should-trying to tell you, with varying levels of candor, to speak less. No one likes verbal diarrhea, least of all a room full of HBS students competing to get airtime.
You seemed to at least have learned what not to do when speaking in class during Foundations. And yet, it is as though you have gone from starvation to gluttony. The unwritten rule of HBS participation is to speak once every three classes or so. Didn’t the professors put up overheads telling you that? This is a problem you must sort out this year for you will find, in the second year, professors and classmates far less patient with you.
Of course they’re a still a few annoying people in the second year who don’t seem to get enough of the sound of their own voices, but rest assured, those that still behave as such choose to ignore a message they have clearly gotten. A few suggestions to help you repress your desire to talk:
1. Drink lots of water at the beginning of each class. As your section norms doubtless stipulate you shouldn’t leave class to go to the bathroom, you’ll stay focused on getting to the loo rather than speaking in class.
2. Wait to speak until called on and tell the person sitting next to you to whack you when you don’t.
3. Take detailed notes of what people are saying. That way, you’ll be focused on writing things down rather than speaking.
4. Grasp the idea that people don’t like it when you talk all the time. Short of being a complete misogynist, that’s got to make you realize the trade-off between talking and your sectionmates liking you.
Please send letters to Auntie Sam at Auntie.Sam@mba2002.hbs.edu.