Many people’s biggest fear around interacting with others is that they’re going to “run out of things to say.” An “awkward pause,” to many of us, seems like the most painful and embarrassing thing that can possibly happen in a conversation. We fear silence so deeply that we often find ourselves talking solely to fill space. It seems we’d rather make forced, meaningless “small talk” about the weather, politics, sports and so on than run the risk of an “uncomfortable silence.”
Our fear of silence has produced a vast body of literature on how to keep conversations going. Writers on social interaction advise us to memorize lines we can use to “break the ice” with strangers, read the newspaper and make lists of interesting current events to bring up, prepare jokes we can crack to be entertaining, and so on—all with the goal of preventing the dreaded “awkward pause.” The ideal conversationalist, we’re taught, always has a ready question, anecdote or witticism to keep people talking.
What is it about silence that scares us so much? My sense is that it has to do with our fear of being seen for who we truly are. Words have many functions, but one of the things we commonly use them for is ensuring that others form positive impressions of us and distracting them from aspects of ourselves we aren’t proud of. With language, we can brag about our accomplishments, sound intelligent, tell “white lies” to soothe people’s egos, and so on. In quiet moments, by contrast, we can’t use words to shape the way we’re seen.
Thus, in moments of silence, we have far less control over the image we project to others, and we feel naked and exposed. Of course, we can always move our bodies in rehearsed ways to try to make the “right impression.” But somehow, body language doesn’t seem as precise a tool for making sure others perceive us in certain ways as verbal communication. It feels easier to, say, make a joke or tell a lie than to effectively mimic the movements of a confident or attractive person.
How Silence Brings Depth To Our Interactions
While silence makes it harder for us to control the impression we create, it also opens the way to deeper and more fulfilling relating with people. When we release our need to fill the space in conversations with meaningless chatter, or manipulate and distract others with our words, we gain access to a dimension of human relationships most of us rarely, if ever, experience.
I discovered this myself during a transformational workshop I took a while back. As part of an exercise, I was having a conversation with one of the course leaders about the places where I had room to grow as a person. After we’d talked for a while, she expressed some frustration with me because, she said, I “had an answer for everything.” No matter what she said, it seemed like I always had a quick reply, explanation or joke at the ready, and this had her feel disconnected from me.
At first, when she said this, I felt confused. Wasn’t I supposed to have an “answer for everything”? Wasn’t the ability to quickly respond to what the other person says, and avoid “awkward pauses,” the mark of a good conversationalist? I’d always prided myself on my ability to charm and fascinate people through talking. How would I communicate effectively without relying on my “gift of the gab”?
I admitted to her I wasn’t sure how we could improve the communication between us. She suggested that we try silently making eye contact. Because, at the time, I bought into the conventional wisdom that it’s critical to avoid “uncomfortable silences” at all costs, I initially felt anxious about doing this. But when I finally agreed to try it, I was pleasantly surprised at the experience.
As I anticipated, when we stared at each other in silence, I felt vulnerable and a little scared. I knew that, if she formed a negative opinion of me, there was nothing I could do to dispel it or explain it away. I couldn’t make offhand references to my credentials or people I knew, joke around to make myself look fun, drop names of obscure authors to sound intelligent, or use any of the other verbal tricks I’d employed in the past to impress people. She was going to see me just as I was, and I was powerless to stop it.
On the other hand, I started to realize, there was something deeply fulfilling about being seen for who and what I was, without any hiding, embellishment or distraction. On some level, this is what I’d been wanting for a long time—to be appreciated for my true self, rather than for the clever ways I disguised myself through talking. As she gazed into me, I felt a peaceful, nourishing warmth spreading through my chest and stomach.
What’s more, I had the privilege of seeing her for who she truly was, without having to peer through a screen of words. I was moved by how real and unpretentious she and our interaction seemed, and by how much we learned about each other without saying anything. As Buddhist teacher Peter Fenner describes this kind of experience in Radiant Mind: Awakening Unconditioned Awareness, “we find that we don’t need to respond, and yet in the absence of a verbal reply, everything is communicated and taken care of.”
Silence Awakens Us To Our Shared Humanity
Another key realization I had in doing this exercise was that it’s only in quiet moments with others that we fully recognize how much we have in common with them. Each of us plays a series of roles in society—as parents, employees, customers, and so on—and language is the main tool we use to inform others of the social roles we play and learn about theirs.
When we say “I’ll have a green tea” to the barista at the coffee shop, for instance, we’re playing the role of customer and telling the barista to play the role of server. We ask others “what do you do” to learn more about the social role they play in the area of their career, and their answer determines much about how we relate to them. Based on this information, perhaps we’ll ignore them, respect them, express more interest in them, or something else.
The more we learn about others’ social roles, and the more focused we become on playing our own, the more separation we feel from people. For example, if I meet you and I learn that you’re in a career field that differs from my own—perhaps, say, you’re a doctor and I’m a mechanic—I’ll likely start feeling separated and disconnected from you. I’ll start making all sorts of assumptions about your lifestyle, the people you associate with, and so on, and how radically your life must differ from mine.
Similarly, if I say “hello” to you in English and you respond in a different language, I may begin thinking of you as a “foreigner,” rather than as simply another person. Language thus makes us conscious of differences between us we wouldn’t otherwise have perceived. And the more we get fixated on the differences between our social roles, the less conscious we become of our shared humanity.
By contrast, in moments of silence, our attention shifts from our social roles to the fact that—despite our different nationalities, ethnicities, occupations and so on—we’re all nothing more and nothing less than human beings. This can be uncomfortable, as many of us rely on our social roles to help us feel secure and often superior to others. But if we breathe through our discomfort and allow it to pass away, we discover a peace we don’t experience often.
This is the peace of knowing that, despite our differences, we’re all in a sense “playing on the same team,” or embarked on the same human journey. In spiritual terms, it’s the knowledge that we share a common essence, or are made up of the same energy that comprises all life in the universe. As Carolyn Humphreys writes in From Ash To Fire, “often the loving acceptance and understanding felt in silent communication speaks louder than words. As in prayer, the silence allows for an intimate listening and a speech that is from heart to heart.”
Exploring Silence In Your Relationships
If you want to explore more deeply the rich experience that silent relating can offer, or if these ideas sound absurd or “far out” to you, I encourage you to try this exercise. Ask a friend or intimate partner if they’d be willing to spend a minute or two quietly making eye contact with you. As you gaze into the other person’s eyes, keep breathing slowly and deeply, and allow whatever tension may arise in your body to course through you and subside.
Notice, as you look at the other person in silence, how much you can perceive about how they’re feeling and what they’re thinking. In other words, notice how deeply you can know and understand them without saying or hearing a word. You may also recognize that what you learn about someone through silently interacting can feel far deeper and more meaningful than anything they could tell you about themselves. You may see the wisdom of Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s words: “what you are shouts so loudly in my ears I cannot hear what you say.”
I won’t guarantee that doing this will be comfortable. You may find silently relating with someone, particularly if you’re doing it for the first time, a tense or frightening experience. But if you pay close attention, I think you’ll also see that silent interaction affords you a great opportunity to learn more about yourself. Notice the thoughts and feelings that emerge when you’re being with someone in silence, and you’ll become more aware of the areas where you have room to grow.
For example, if you feel nervous silently making eye contact with someone, turn your attention to what you’re afraid of. What are you afraid they’re going to think or feel about you as you’re quietly connecting? What “awful truth” will they learn about you that you usually keep hidden behind a screen of words? Contemplating what scares you about silently interacting with someone can tell you a lot about the beliefs that may be limiting your fulfillment and achievement in life, and help you take the first step toward changing them.
The conventional wisdom has it that, in relating with people, silence is always “awkward” or “uncomfortable.” However, I don’t think it needs to be. When we become willing to drop our preconceived notions about silence and let ourselves experience it in relating with others, we gain access to a deeper level of communication and intimacy that we don’t usually get to experience.