To my adolescent mind trying to make sense of the world, silence seemed to be a man’s prerogative. The “silent treatment” was what women of my parents’ generation occasionally inflicted on men as punishment—a sullen refusal to talk, as if the women had gone on strike, in a bid for attention. Men, on the other hand, seemed to give women the silent treatment all the time, and nobody thought anything of it. Taciturn by nature, disinclined to reveal themselves, men appeared to feel no obligation to keep other people entertained. It was up to women—as dates, as dinner guests, as hostesses—to draw men out, to engage them in social banter. A woman took a man’s silence as a failure on her part; a man heard a woman’s silence as a reproach.
Some years later, in my first job at a magazine, as my colleagues and I waited for our stone-faced boss to deliver his verdict on layouts presented for his approval, the more nervous among us rushed into the void his silence created and blurted out our self-justifications. More often than not, this proved to be a mistake. Out came our embarrassing ignorance of the subject at hand and—worse—opinions that turned out to be contrary to the boss’s own, when finally he voiced it.
Since then, the world has gotten more garrulous. If nature abhors a vacuum, human nature seems to abhor empty space in a conversation. Talk fills the air, cramming our every waking minute with “social media” to such an extent that silence is now anti-social: to be experienced only in solitude, not in the company of others. In person, on the phone, via email, the chatter continues and any gap, however temporary, induces anxiety.
Which, I’ll admit, has come in handy in my work as a journalist. Every so often, attempting to pry open a source who was glib but otherwise not forthcoming, I got the information I was looking for (and then some) simply by waiting quietly instead of moving on to the next question, refraining from my habitual nods of encouragement and expressions of agreement. This seemed to make the person doing the talking ill at ease, as if the information had failed to register and some sort of elaboration were required. Nine times out of ten the revelations came, in an outpouring of innermost thoughts heor she had never intended to confide in a stranger.
If we are unnerved by other people’s silence, I think that’s because it’s so easily interpreted—or misinterpreted—as hostile, a failure to acknowledge us and whatever it was that we just said. On those occasions when my silence as a journalist failed to get someone to tell me more, it was usually because the subject was too self-possessed, content to sit out any lull for as long as it lasted without reading anything into it or taking it personally.
For me, that kind of confidence has come late in the game. With time and experience, my kneejerk eagerness to please has subsided, and in its place I have somehow come around to granting myself permission to pause and consider what’s been said, to decide how I want to respond instead of merely reacting.
I was well into my forties when one day, mid-discussion with the man in my life at the time, I fell silent. Moments passed. “Well?” he asked.
“I’m thinking,” I said. I daresay this came as a surprise to both of us. Thinking was usually something I did somewhere off in private, after the conversation had ended.