By Robine Jean-Pierre
In my Elements of Music course at NYU, the professors pointed out that the rests, or pauses between sounds, make up a piece of music just as much as the actual notes do. The intro to Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony is so powerful and memorable, in part, because of the rests.
If we take things outside the realm of music, we see that silence is a crucial part of communication. Some of us may be more talkative than others, but no one is ever speaking 100% of the time. We pause when we are listening, when we are thinking about what we want to say, when we feel respect, nervousness, concentration, guilt–it all depends on the scenario, and so it is important that we understand these distinctions.
The Silence of Concentration
The quietness in a library tells you that people are focused and busy at work. The silence in a church might tell you that people are deep in contemplative prayer. A classroom is usually quietest when the students are taking a test. In these examples, the silence itself is not the focus; it is simply a result of some deep, inner process at work.
The Silence of Unity
There are times when silence is the main focus. In school, we often had moments of silence in observance of 9/11, and we did it to demonstrate respect for the friends, relatives and heroes who lost their lives that day. Whenever people take part in a unanimous display of solidarity, it moves me. There is something so powerful about everyone agreeing to stop what they are doing and focus on one shared experience.
The Silence of Disunity
There are other times, however, when silence represents disunity rather than harmony. You might be familiar with what is called “the silent treatment.” Imagine you insulted your father by doing something very foolish behind his back, and now he hasn’t spoken to you for days. Obviously, it’s not because he has nothing to say. I personally hate the silent treatment. One of the easiest ways to hurt me is to deliberately ignore me–but the people who are enforcing it are usually the most hurt of all. They feel that their silence, rather than their words, will more effectively convey their pain, frustration, or disappointment.
Using Silence Constructively
Since silence can convey a message or emotion that is either positive or negative, I want to suggest ways in which we can intentionally use it to promote effective communication.
The Silence of Consideration
In my personal experience, I do not like it when someone answers my questions too quickly or abruptly, as if they knew what I was going to say before I said it. A pause before replying to someone’s question can actually be beneficial for both parties. If, for instance, my sister asked me, “What classes do you think I should take next semester?” pausing will give me time to come up with a thoughtful answer. Plus, it will make her feel important, knowing that I cared to give her my time and thought, rather than hastily dismiss her with the first answer that came to mind. (I highly recommend reading the book Skill with People by Les Giblin; it is a thin handbook full of advice on how to communicate more effectively.)
The Silence of Listening
I have often heard it said that God gave us two ears and one mouth so that we could listen twice as much as we speak. If you are anything like me, you get irritated when people cut you off mid-sentence (especially when they start their sentence by saying, “Not to cut you off, but…”). I once read somewhere that a person lasts an average of 17 seconds of listening before he/she feels the need to speak again in a conversation.
The basic fact of the matter is that we cannot listen and talk at the same time; even the greatest “multi-taskers” must admit this. Being a good listener means having a willingness to stay silent while someone else has the mic, whether that is for 17 seconds or five whole minutes (I know, that’s a long time, especially for our generation!). If you never pause to listen, and you are the only one speaking, that makes it a monologue, not a dialogue.
The Silence of the Wise
I will end with a word of advice: sometimes silence spares you from a lot of trouble. Think of all those police shows where you have heard this portion of the Miranda rights: “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say or do can and will be used against you in the court of law…” It would be smart for an arrested person to exercise that right, rather than say something foolishly that would further incriminate him or her. On a more relatable note, whether it’s the school bully or a family member, silence can be the strongest defense against someone’s antagonism. It can keep you from saying things you will regret, or from stooping down to someone’s level.
I hope this helped you to see silence with a new perspective. I will leave you with a poem I wrote below, titled (of course) “Silence.” Thank you for reading.
The absence of sound.
The brief moment when thin air rests in your ears.
A dull void, empty, cold,
yet as leaden and suffocating
as darkness itself…
are these the definition of silence?
Possibly… but I offer a different interpretation.
is the ear-splitting screech of raw, pure thoughts
huddling, hesitating in their last moments of privacy:
some yearning anxiously for their spontaneous departure;
others holding on, settling at the bottom of
the ocean floor we call our conscience.
is the thick black cloth
that envelops these thoughts
(providing protection, yet restraint):
some too fragile to be forced out
into the open;
Others so dense, unstable,
that they would drop
on the world.