I believe in silence.
In that preceding stretch of blank space, what did you think about? “Okay, why did she leave about eleven lines blank? I don’t get it. That’s weird. That’s creative. Did Microsoft Word freak out on her?” Did she fall into a coma while typing? Silence is the same way. It allows us a chance to think, to analyze, to connect. And yet it is so often characterized as a negative thing. An uncomfortable empty stretch in a conversation to be hastily shoved away by someone muttering “awkward silence.” Quiet people are shy people. Silence means antisocial awkward unoriginal closed-offness.
But me? I view silence as an opportunity for connection. I’ve always bristled when people call me “shy.” I listen to people, and I think that with the people that we know the best we don’t have to use so many words. I’m all for communication, don’t get me wrong. But I’m for multiple types for communication, not just “so I saw Jenny talking to Brad after school yesterday” in a desperate attempt to alleviate an “awkward silence” in a conversation. Three days ago I attended a party hosted by one of my friends who attends a different high school. I knew no one there. For the first five or ten minutes I was friendly, but I didn’t exactly throw myself into the conversation. I listened to what was going on around me. After taking a litmus test for this group’s particular brand of humor, I was able to jump in and gel with the rest of them almost immediately. But getting to that point took around seven minutes of a fair amount of silence on my part .
And then there are those moments that would be ruined if and speech was uttered. After a hard workout with my track teammates, we are able to look one another in the eye in silent recognition that we were all out there together that day and put in a great workout. The first time I failed a math test I didn’t want anything but silence. Devastated, I sat at break with one of my friends. She didn’t say anything, and I was grateful for that. All I needed was someone to sit with me; no “oh, it’s only one test I wouldn’t worry!” All you had to do was look at her face to see that she understood completely and felt genuinely sad for me.
I believe that some of the most powerful understandings of people we care about can be inferred from silence. I believe that some of the strongest communal experiences don’t require any words, and in fact would be detracted from by their presence. I believe that so much can be communicated in silence: a look, an emotion, our body language. And taking note of this can help us all to communicate much more effectively. In the absence of silence we often miss some of the most fundamental things.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.