Nobody likes being told to be quiet, especially with the finger-to-lips-word “Shhh!” Such a demand is perceived by most as annoying, intrusive and embarrassing. But try the shush command with my daughter (or many others on the spectrum who have trouble modulating their voices) and the opposite effect will be achieved. Think of “shush” as light striking a dynamite fuse, and expect an immediate explosion. Shush can trigger my poised and beautiful Samantha so much that she instantly turns into Voldemort.
Asking my daughter to lower her voice has always been a tricky proposition. Adding “please” to “be quiet,”“shh!”, or finally, an exasperated “shut up” NEVER worked for Samantha—not at six and not at 26 and here’s why:
At age 6, our babysitter told me Samantha had been fooling around with her twin brother while waiting for the elevator. They were tickling each other, and Samantha laughed with glee. For my twins, this was one of those few glorious times when they were able to interact and enjoy each other. I was not happy to learn later that this special moment had been cut short by a stranger.
“Be quiet and stop that right now!” commanded a man with slicked back hair and a handlebar mustache. The mustache had been meticulously twisted into two points, and although he lived our building, his face looked scary and mean to my twins. To make sure he had my daughter’s full attention, this relative stranger put a restraining hand on Samantha’s small shoulder and leaned forward into her face.
Terrified, my six-year-old daughter burst into tears. My horrified babysitter reported the incident to me and my husband immediately. The next time Howard and I encountered our Scrooge-like neighbor on the elevator, my husband went nose to nose with him, warning him never to touch our daughter again. Nobody walked away happy….
Fast forward 10 years, and Samantha is once again waiting for the elevator. This time it’s the doorman and handyman who report back to me. Since we have only one working elevator in our building, (for 140 apartments) there is often a seemingly interminable wait. Tenants, dogs, garbage—everything and everyone crowds into the same slowly moving sardine box.
Now that my daughter is an adult, she can wait patiently (more or less) by having long, animated conversations on her cell phone. As luck would have it, recently the same miserable man with his razor- sharp mustache was waiting for the elevator and demanded that my daughter “shut up.” According to the doorman, Samantha continued chatting and walked away. Mustache Man apparently followed and ordered her again to “Shut up.”
After ignoring several requests, Samantha turned to the man and yelled: “Why don’t YOU shut up?” According to the doorman, Samantha continued her phone conservation, but circled away to a different part of the lobby. Mustache Man continued to follow my daughter and ordered her more insistently to “Shut up.”
Finally fed up with his repeated requests, Samantha turned to the man and yelled back: “Why don’t YOU shut up and mind your own business?” According to the handyman, the argument escalated even after the elevator arrived and became crowded. Apparently, Samantha really stood her ground and told off our neighbor in words I’d rather not repeat. Lucky for Mustache Man he got off at the 4th floor.
The handyman’s reaction? “I love your daughter! She really stands up for herself and doesn’t let anyone push her around.”
While I’m not proud of some of the words my daughter chose, I sincerely doubt that Mustache Man will ever bother Samantha again. She’s come a long way from the frightened and withdrawn six-year old who’d burst into tears. Honestly, if I have to choose between the scared child unable to defend herself and the adult version of a holy terror, I greatly prefer the young woman with chutzpah and confidence.
The moral of these stories? Find a polite and respectful way to ask someone to quiet down. Model a kind, thoughtful voice. Better yet, just tolerate the person who is too loud for the short periods when your paths cross, because the bottom line is that we don’t know why a person is talking in an overly loud voice (and maybe we don’t care). But perhaps the person speaking too loudly is not merely inconsiderate, but very excited, sad, anxious, happy OR on the autistic spectrum and unable to recognize and control their decibel level.
In my opinion, everyone should think before they speak. I tell that to Samantha all the time. For her—and everyone else—following this advice is still a work in progress.