Social Capital

I’ve been thinking about this idea of social capital for a while. I feel like I only have so much influence, and I need to be careful where I spend it. It’s like the strategy games my husband likes to play. If I have 20 influence points, do I want to spend 10 of them on changing the font on the flyer, or do I save all 20 to fix the grammar? I’m afraid I can’t do both. And so, I don’t always speak up on matters that seem to be small, so I can save my influence for things that seem big.

My fear stems from being too much. I’m afraid that if I speak up all the time, people will stop listening to me. If I take up more space, people may take what I say less seriously. It’s like the more rare a thing is, the more valuable it is. So I have to make my voice be rare, so it can be valued.

I’ve been trying to question this story, because it is a story that I’ve invented. I could tell myself another story, such as my voice is so important that people want to hear from me all the time. That the more I speak up, the more of an expert I am, and the more people will pay attention to me.

But the idea of limited influence points didn’t come from nothing. We get it when someone says “Let’s hear from someone who hasn’t spoken up yet.” I like hearing those words, because I like hearing from everyone! But at the same time, it can imply to a sensitive speaker that they are oversharing. In fact, TMI, Too Much Information, implies that there is such a thing as just the right amount of information, and we need to be socially adept at telling where that line is.

How much is too much seems to depend on social status. Men can get away with talking more in meetings than women can. Higher ranked people can talk more than lower ranked. White people can express more opinions than people of color. At least, that’s my perception of how the world seems to work.

But this means that people don’t speak up about the microaggressions that happen every day. They save up their energy for the big things. They fight for those people of color killed by police, rather than the judge who assumed the man at the table had to be the defendant, rather than the lawyer, based on the color of his skin. I didn’t tell the very tall man that he loomed over me and could he please step back a bit, he was in my space. Why? I was waiting to see if I would have to speak up about something he might say or do that would be more clearly crossing a line. My own comfort is small potatoes compared to assault.

Not speaking up eventually leads to resentment and disengagement, at least in my experience. So I am practicing speaking up about the little things that I once regarded as not worth using up my influence. I’m choosing to believe that there is not a limited amount of social capital, and that I have the right and even obligation to speak my truth whenever it seems important to do so. No one else can speak it for me.

What is your experience? Do you believe in a shortage of social capital? Why or why not?

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