"Experience teaches us that silence terrifies people the most."
He enters the classroom, sits down, doesn't say anything. he looks at us, we look at him. At first there are a few giggles, but Morrie only shrugs, and eventually a deep silence falls and we begin to notice the smallest sounds, the radiator humming in the corner of the room, the nasal breathing of one of the fat students.
Some of us are agitated. When is he going to say something? We squirm, check our watches. A few students look out of the window, trying to be above it all. This goes on a good fifteen minutes, before Morrie finally breaks in with a whisper.
"What's happening here?" he asks. And slowly a discussion begins - as Morrie has wanted all along - about the effect of silence on human relations. Why are we embarrassed by silence? What comfort do we find in all the noise? (An extract from 'tuesdays with Morrie' by Mitch Albom)
I put down the book. How true it was! We were so often embarrassed by a lull of silence in our conversations. Just think of a social evening. At some point the buzz of conversation dies down and there is silence in the air. How uncomfortably it seems to hang - and most people squirm, trying to quickly think up a topic or a joke to break "the ice" so to speak. Then someone plunges in, and there is a mild sigh of relief all around. The evening goes on.
And what about one-on-one interactions? Oh that's even more tough! A friend returned from a date completely flustered. "How did it go?" I asked. "Oh he maybe a wonderful guy but he is too quiet, it was quite tiring really," she replied. Then she went on to explain. The man in question was wonderful to talk to (when he did talk, that is). But during their chats, there were some moments of silence. He was quite ok with that, quietly drinking his coffee but unfortunately my friend was not. So everytime such a moment came to pass, she jumped right in filling the silence with small talk - anything from telling him about her childhood, her friends, some funny incident at home - anything at all. To all of that he quietly smiled and let her go on. The result was that by the end of the evening, she had done almost all the talking and was tired. Furthermore, while she had told the man much more than probably he wanted to know about her on their first date, she did not get to know him at all! When I pointed this out to her, she wailed "but how could I get to know him - he was so silent and uncommunicative! I was afraid he was getting bored"
Was it really so? I wondered. I asked another talkative friend of mine - successfully married to a man who comes across as rather serious and quiet when you first meet him. "Well I really wanted to get to know him when we first met," she replied. "So I used to keep quiet and just throw in some questions now and then. I turned a listener!" But what about silences? "Ah well," she said rather philosophically, "I assumed that the silence was as uncomfortable for him as it was for me so if it came to that, he would say something to break it!" What if he was getting bored? "Not my problem. It could be interpreted both ways really. If I was worried that the silence meant I was boring him, he might be thinking the same thing!" Hmm a battle of wills...
As part of our training in Qualitative Research we are taught how to handle silence which may crop up during interviews and group discussions. It is extremely common for a moderator to get all jumpy and anxious if the group lapses into a period of silence. The moderator feels a loss of control and in order to do away with the silence and get the group going again often jumps in with the next question or topic. However in doing so, often vital information remains undiscovered. This is where the training teaches us to react differently.
A good moderator lets the silence hang in the air for a while because the silence could be important data as well. It could mean any of the various things: a)that the respondents are mulling over the issue at hand and need some time to respond b) they have nothing more to say on the matter c) they are bored d) they disagree with some issue but have not bonded well enough to feel free to express their disagreement, so on and so forth. So after letting the silence be, in case no response comes up, the moderator may then throw in some probes to try and understand the nature of the silence before moving on. Also, as is often the case, the respondents are also uncomfortable with silence and one of them is likely to break it and therefore take the discussion forward. So the training allows the moderator to be aware of her anxiety, harness her need to control and let the group process flow more naturally.
But what of the times when we are on our own and are terrified by silence? In such times, silence points out to us our loneliness. Often the TV is a handy escape in such instances. A friend's elderly mother keeps the TV on night and day in her empty house. She says it is her companion. She even sleeps with the TV switched on as it makes her feel there are other people people in the house talking and she is not alone. Asked what would happen if the TV was not there, she replied that then she would be scared of her loneliness as well as the anxious thoughts that would then fill her mind.
So there it is - our silences are often more deafening than our chatter. And we rush to fill it in with words - words that often mean nothing really.