I’ve wondered why people find silence so uncomfortable. We live in a noisy world, and yet a lot of people seem to feel strange when it stops.
True enough, some kinds of silence can be unnerving. We have all been treated to cold silence, the hollow spot where words used to be. Perhaps we have made a comment, and it just hangs in the air. This is the silent treatment: more than just the absence of words, somebody has made a one sided choice to shut down communication. It is intended to disturb us, or at least to allow it, an unstated rejection. We give the silent treatment to people we trust to notice, and to care. Being ignored is exasperating, as there is no way to make sense of it, or to respond. That’s the point. Why do people choose cold silence over a gracious exit?
One possibility: the silent treatment can be a form of aggression that can later be denied. After all, there is no record of angry words or rejection. It is meant to keep options open. The hurt is real, but there is no accountability. How crazy does it make you when the silent one shows up later in a cheery state of mind, or a long overdue text message surfaces, as if nothing had happened? Oops, sorry, busy? Another possibility: the silent treatment can be an emotional withdrawal, when it is not safe to speak. Perhaps the silent person fears retaliation if they answer honestly, or feels discouraged that anyone is listening. Perhaps the anger or hurt are too raw for conversation. In all of these cases, something important is hanging in the air. No wonder people dread silence, if in their experience, it starts with confusion and ends in crisis.
But really, It’s not the silence that is dreadful, it’s the rejection. Think of quiet moments that have been too spectacular for words: great music, a mountainscape, the intimacy shared with someone close. These moments may not only allow silence, but require it, because there are no words to do them justice. If there is silence between friends or colleagues, it doesn’t have to mean that they have run out of things to say to one another, or signal an offense beyond fixing. Perhaps they have just gone adrift in a loose moment of gratitude or creative disengagement. No telling what meditative thoughts may surface during a moment of shared silence. It may feel like a risk, but offer an unexpected gift.