The Fear of Speaking Up


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The Fear of Speaking Up

I’m terrified of speaking up.

On social media, my accounts mostly remain deprived of any form of content. Posting Instagram stories about my opinion on anything just feels like a possibility of getting canceled. In conversations, pushing too hard on something I strongly believe in makes me worry that I would be seen as a difficult person to work with or get along with. Needless to say, this attitude follows me in university, and my class participation is basically non-existent (Goodbye 20% of my grade). 

As my frustration builds over the years at my own inability to speak up, it also makes me wonder: Why do I find it so hard to speak up in the first place?

Hyper-Awareness of Self

Attention. That’s probably the first thing most people would say. The way everyone’s eyes zero in on you, waiting expectantly for you to speak. That’s when your palms begin to sweat, and you lose your train of thought. More than that, I would say it’s our wish to portray our best selves.

Personally, I confess that I am very much a people-pleaser. I was the kid who would say ‘yes’ to whatever my friends wanted to do just to make them happy, or begin tearing up ever so slightly when I thought an authority figure was upset with me. In an academic setting, this meant that I needed the right answers to impress my professors.

Though this may help students come up with thoughtful answers that are not only well-articulated but also insightful, to begin with, it only made me hyper-aware of how I was even portrayed. I would spend minutes trying to hype myself up to answer a professor’s question, only to start self-doubting my answers as the time continued to tick away: The answer is right, right? Then again, maybe I shouldn’t say it…the point is kind of moot, anyway. 

With Zoom university, this fear just seems to intensify. Now, I give myself even more questions and reasons to doubt myself before opening my mouth. Did I turn my camera on yet? How do I look? Is my mic on? By the time I finally pull myself together, someone has already shared the point I wanted to say. 

The Pressure of Collectivism

We all know that uncomfortable moment when we first enter a breakout room. No one speaks. Everyone just stares blankly at one another until one brave soul decides to break the silence. Or worse; the silence remains until the professor finally calls everyone back into the main room. 

Though it may be awkward, I believe that many of us would agree that breakout room discussions are so much less pressurising compared to speaking in front of the entire class. The internal desire to not stand out evaporates in a setting where one is less likely to be seen, and since there are no academic consequences to whatever you choose to say, the self-doubt vanishes as well.

This possibly ties into the presence of a professor in a Zoom Breakout room versus the Main room. In a 2017 study on the cultural challenges and teaching strategies faced in Singapore, Charlene Tan suggests how students’ “inhibition to articulate one’s views in class originates from a desire by students to show respect to the teacher and preserve…cordial relationships with others.” Since there are more individuals present in a Zoom Main room compared to a Breakout room, this further increases our inhibition to preserve harmony within the group.

Other scholars have also forewarned how Asian students and their lack of desire to not speak up in class should not be associated with a lack of critical thinking. In fact, we are willing to speak out in settings that are viewed as “less threatening and more culturally appropriate formats,” which explains why we feel less nervous in small group settings.

Yet as universities allocate points to those who speak up the most in class, the values we have been encouraged to follow in primary and secondary school are what we are now discouraged to do––and all for the sake of getting a better grade.

Speak Up or Be Silent

Though participation may no longer be graded when you go into the workplace, it would be naive to think that the importance of speaking up would become less prevalent as a result. In fact, numerous journal articles are dedicated to researching factors that influence speaking up in workplaces, such as hierarchical group dynamics and the workplace environment. Emphasis is placed on higher-ups to promote a learning environment, as well as on employees to challenge authorities when necessary. Especially when it comes to particular jobs—such as those within the healthcare industry—effective collaboration between all employees is necessary to ensure there are no grave consequences to the patient’s safety. 

The importance of voice in workgroup environments should also not be disregarded. Known as group voice climate, the term suggests the voicing of ideas, suggestions, or opinions between employees. Elizabeth Morrison and Sara Wheeler-Smith have cited this to be especially important in improving organizational or unit functioning. When analyzing the ability of group voice climate to predict voice behavior, they found that group members are more likely to express their ideas and suggestions when the climate facilitates opinions to be shared safely and effectively. As better decisions and lesser mistakes are made when individuals are willing to voice their thoughts, group performance improves overall. Thus, speaking up can help create a safe encouraging environment not only for yourself but others as well who may struggle to voice their own thoughts effectively.

The Solution

Kathy Caprino suggests that “speaking up powerfully for oneself is one of the most universal challenges human beings face today.” Giving a personal anecdote of her own life struggles, she explains how this phenomenon of not speaking up may actually affect your emotional, physical and behavioral functioning. Someday, not being able to speak up when you want to may become one of the most frustrating and helpless feelings you’ve ever felt. So why not start speaking up now?

We can pretend that our fear will miraculously subside over time, but we all know it’s not true. Unfortunately, I can’t offer false reassurances, and the final solution is the one we all want to desperately ignore: Just suck it up and do it. This is especially the case for those in faculties where class participation accounts for a huge percentage of grades, such as Business and FASS. However, what I can say is that it definitely gets easier over time. Like a muscle, you just have to keep practicing it.

Scoring class participation marks may feel like an unnecessary pain or even useless to those who are not graded on it. Nevertheless, it serves as a good starting point for how you wish to approach the rest of your life, as the way you choose to approach trivial situations can reflect the type of life you choose to live for yourself. For some of us, practicing our speaking skills may allow our peers to understand our perspective on the world, and become a means of deepening our relationship with them. For others, such as those who may work in the healthcare industry, it may become a deciding factor in ensuring that detrimental mistakes are not made at the expense of another’s life. 

Regardless of where you end up in life in the next few years, opting for class participation can become your first step in becoming braver and more self-assured in your own ideas. University only lasts 3 to 5 years and how you choose to make the most of it is up to you. Though the thought of speaking up still terrifies me to this day, I hope those who feel the same way may find comfort in reading this article and know that you’re not alone. 🙂


*This article is in no way a replacement for academic research regarding such issues and should be only seen as a personal reflective piece of the phenomenon.