Silence can be unsettling.
Silence is uncomfortable because it is becoming increasingly rare in our non-stop, global, fast-paced, constantly-evolving society.
These days, quiet time is often considered either “wasted” time, or, ironically, a luxury most cannot afford. The fear of silence seems so engrained in our lives that even when we are alone we are typically engaged in conversations, in noise: texting friends, listening to music, watching television, and scanning social media sites. When we’re not alone, sitting in someone’s company without speaking seems almost revolutionary.
But within silence lies wisdom.
Here are some beneficial ways to work with silence:
1. Make your voice matter.
When we don’t usually speak, each word that we express gains significance. All of us have been to meetings where we completely tune a person out because they’ve raised their hand to voice their opinion too many times. We all know people who are more than ready to jump in with advice or stories before we even finish explaining our dilemma. It’s frustrating to feel that people are talking solely to hear their own voices. Their opinions and comments fail to gain any kind of traction after they’ve worn the path to nothing with their continuous chatter.
But when we are quiet, others don’t have the chance to become desensitized to our voices, so that when we do speak, words carry more meaning. They are inherently seen as more worthy of attending to, a high note in the monotony.
Shutting up and choosing to speak only when we really have something to say makes everything we say worth hearing.
2. Be a better friend.
School friends are convenient and comfortable, often a snapshot of who we were and who we will become as adults. But after high school and college, we don’t see the same kids in classes every year, we don’t get to coordinate schedules or bond over how much homework we have.
Meeting new people can seem impossible in the real world. I’ve learned that shutting up is sometimes necessary to make new friends, and to keep old ones. My 21st birthday was the worst of my life—not because of drunken shenanigans; it was far worse than any hangover.
It was the day I lost my best friend. This wasn’t a casual acquaintance, but a life-long best friend. Someone who went through the first day of pre-school with me, who vacationed with my family, and who I could have entire conversations with in silence, who was my sister and knew me better than I knew myself. That was also the day that I truly understood the power of shutting up. When I learned that words that cannot be taken back can become a terrible reality. Had I taken two seconds to think about my words instead of speaking—just two seconds of silence—my entire life would be different. It sounds dramatic to say so, but when you spend every day with someone and suddenly every day becomes never, it changes your entire life.
Friendship is not about spitting out every single thought that pops into our heads immediately, and it’s not about lying or secrets either. It’s about communicating with care with someone you care about. It’s about knowing when to shut up and when to speak up. It’s about being a voice the other person needs to hear, and about hearing their voice too.
It’s smiles and sadness and sympathy and sharing words or silence.
3. Help someone.
The point is not to be quiet when it is easy. When questions lie in wait, and conflicts are buried just below the surface of our fragile every days, silence is the easy way out. Not speaking means never facing those issues that seem too great a burden to enunciate. Those are the times when words matter most. The importance of silence grows when it would be easier to talk. When someone is trying to help you, when a friend is telling a story but you have a better one, when we think another person just doesn’t get us, or when we know better than them.
Holding our tongues could save us our job, or maybe help us learn something about ourselves or someone else. Even the mindset of staying quiet to listen helps us get more out of conversations. We’ve all spoken to people who seem constantly waiting for us to take a breath so they can jump in, like they haven’t heard us at all because they’ve been thinking about what they want to say next. If we choose to listen instead of composing our next rant in our head, conversations can become actual connections with other people.
4. Help yourself.
Our inner voice needs a chance to speak too, but sometimes it’s hard to hear when our outer voice won’t shut up. We are a living in an era where self improvement is encouraged and advised at every turn. It’s easy and tempting to read every article we find about the best exercises or the perfect diet, to talk to our friends and compare results. But not all of that information is for everybody. Embracing some quiet time gives us space to just be. Being constantly engaged with others changes the way we think and act and speak. It’s human nature to want to fit into the group, so we unconsciously alter tiny bits of ourselves to meet the norm. But when we are quiet, we give ourselves space to observe and assess without being pulled into a sphere of influence.
Not speaking can take the focus away from ourselves: we tune into our other senses, hear and see what’s going around us, feel the atmosphere in the room. It’s surprising how much information we can take in and how well we can assess a situation when we stop talking long enough to pay attention. Listening to all sides before we fully decide our position on a matter can help us consider different perspectives and grow as individuals. Visiting and observing a place before we judge it could lead us to new and amazing experiences. When we meet new people, letting them talk can help us truly get to know them and what they stand for or believe, for better or worse. When we remove ourselves from the middle of the action, we are better able to be objective observers and understand our lives and our world a little bit better.
I don’t mean to suggest that everyone should take a vow of silence, or that we should never voice our opinions—but we need to consider that talking is not the only option.
Being quiet has nothing to do with whether we are introverted or extroverted. Where we gain our energy should not determine how much we speak. Everyone’s voice is important, but we should all curate our words, and choose carefully when and how to share our voices with the world. Words are powerful. They can be weapons or tools depending on how they are wielded.
We need to save our words and make them matter.
We need to shut up and hear how loud our voices can become. Let’s stop trying to be heard, and just listen.
Author: Gabriella Sweezey
Photo: Cristian V.
Editors: Renée Picard; Travis May