The Conundrum of Silence

Silence can mean so many things, can’t it? It can mean acquiescence or dissent. It can speak volumes or remain mysterious. And, as all re-booters have had to learn, often times it’s smarter or more generous to keep our traps shut. But finding a way to communicate effectively and honestly while not overloading our audience with verbal diarrhea requires us to master that sweet spot of silence—of sensing when we are better off not filling in the gaps, but without setting up a situation for massive miscommunication.


So, the question for today’s post is when do you know to speak up?


I suppose the answer lays somewhere in the realization that we can’t ever fully know. In my experience, people fill in silences with what they want, not with what we intend. I remember years ago, a certain fellow kept asking me out and I never said anything, believing my silence was a kind way to discourage him. But he saw it simply as a signal to continue his quest. I had made the mistake of assuming that how I’d interpret his silence if positions were reversed would be what he’d do, too. Wrong. Eventually, he wore me down and we ended up going out. It turned out to be quite fun…


My point in sharing this story with you is not to highlight some small slice of my dating history, but to demonstrate how silence can be interpreted in a manner radically different from what we expect. A recent review of the revival of Arthur Miller’s A View From the Bridge stated, “Much of the play’s power comes from the aching gap between simple words and vast and complex feelings….The silence between words keeps widening into uncrossable chasms.”


I think we’ve all had relationships where uncrossable chasms developed, where there was either nothing left to say because the parties had given up and grown resentful of one another, or there was so much left unsaid that the silence took on a weight of its own, crushing the relationship into pieces. But, for most of us (hopefully), our important relationships aren’t in tatters but could probably use a little help. Is it better to suffer in silence as they go on and on about whatever, reminding ourselves that eventually they’ll shut up or is there more integrity in, after a certain point, drawing it to a close?


If your parent whines a lot or your kid never quite manages to get their act together, when they are perfectly capable of doing so, should we say something or not? Is our silence complicit or courteous? And does our remaining silent serve the greater good…or not? What do you think?


What is a situation in your life where you wish you’d spoken up sooner or more often? Did things get out of hand because you decided to hold your tongue and let it ride? And, in the converse, what relationship was injured by your saying too much, expressing opinions that only resulted in hurt feelings?


We’re all guilty.


In my life, I have made both mistakes, repeatedly. There have been times where I was terrified to speak up because I knew doing so would result in additional unpleasantness, so I cowered in silence, hoping things would improve. Then, on the other side, one of the insights I discovered that when I uttered that stridently held opinions or bitingly sharp retorts, I assumed nobody would take me seriously. I felt so weak when I said them that I expected my words wouldn’t hurt the other person—yet they did. But by then, it was too late.


Sometimes, it’s hard for us to believe in our own power; we can’t imagine that what we say or do will make that much difference to anyone. It’s a sobering realization to make when you see just how powerful you really are and how much of a direct impact you can have on those around you. However, once we accept this fact, it becomes far easier for us to gauge whether or not silence is constructive. Returning to the Arthur Miller play, it boiled down to a terrible choice, neither of which would result in hearts and flowers. We, too, are confronted by difficult decisions where articulating our thoughts or remaining mute each have certain impacts.


I have no answer for any of this, but believe it can be helpful to consider the various ramifications when it comes to your particular situation. Sometimes, silence is the least worst option, but then again, remaining mute rarely solves the problem. (There are plenty of faltering or toxic relationships in this world that serve as testament.)



Tags: , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: