The hum of conversation, the aroma of roasted turkey, the clinking of silverware on porcelain: This is how I remember last year’s Thanksgiving, spent at a dear friend’s home. I relished the inviting ambience until a conversation about the day’s cooking unexpectedly shifted to the topic of gender roles. It was then that my friend’s father, a revered patriarch in his mid-70s, wistfully mentioned how he missed the “good old days” when things were simpler and “people knew their place.”
The room, filled with faces both familiar and new, grew silent. As a guest caught in this sudden shift, I faced a dilemma: Should I challenge his statement or opt for harmony over discord?
For many of us, especially in our current political climate, speaking up in such settings feels risky. Yet the act of choosing silence might be affecting us more deeply than we think — to the detriment of our emotional and even physical well-being. Far from preserving peace, holding back our thoughts can leave us more unsettled and unhappy. Over time, this leads to increased stress and strain, not just within ourselves but in the very relationships we are trying to preserve.
I’m an organizational psychologist, and a recurring theme has emerged in my research: People are reluctant to challenge or contradict others because of their fear of insinuating distrust or disapproval of the other person.
This tension, termed “insinuation anxiety,” can dissuade us from speaking up everywhere from dinner parties to life-or-death situations. It’s why we so often follow bad advice, why nurses hesitate to voice concerns to surgeons who make medical errors and why we find it hard to tell our hairdressers that we’re disappointed with our new haircuts. Insinuation anxiety can also explain why co-pilots might withhold critical observations from their captains even when lives are in danger, and why derogatory remarks like racial slurs could go unchallenged at social gatherings.
At Thanksgiving, insinuation anxiety could hold you back from challenging a belligerent family member’s statement, voicing an informed contradictory view or calling out a bigoted remark. The crux of this anxiety doesn’t lie in the mere act of disagreement. Instead, it’s the implication that you’re negatively evaluating the speaker and delivering an unspoken message: “I think you are wrong,” or even, “I believe you’re being prejudiced.”
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