“Those who are silent, self-effacing and attentive become the recipients of confidences.” – Thornton Wilder.
When I first moved to New York City, I did not feel like speaking for a month. I was being dragged to every social gathering imaginable, so it was the worst time to contract verbal constipation. The second folks got wind that I hailed from the other side of the world, they would exclaim: “Oh wow, how’s the adjustment going? What do you think of New York?” Nothing exasperated me more than hearing this query 48 hours after my plane had touched down. I found myself saying, over and over, “It’s nice, I like it here,” while cursing my lack of originality. What I really wanted to say was: “I don’t have an opinion yet. Why don’t you tell me about your city?”
Silence opens the mind
At the time, I preferred to look and listen while I recalibrated my bearings and reassembled my personality in completely new environs – but months later I find that my preference hasn’t changed. Have you ever heard the expression: “The greatest gift you can give another is your full attention”? I’ve found peace in relying mostly on my eyes and my ears during a conversation – it gives me time to select my words and learn something new. In How to Talk to Anyone: 92 Little Tricks for Big Success in Relationships, Leil Lowndes likens small talk to music. “Small talk is about putting people at ease. It’s about making comforting noises together like cats purring, children humming or groups chanting,” she writes. You can’t do that if you aren’t listening. As the class clown I used to tally up in my head how many times I’d made someone laugh that day, but now I prefer to reflect on the times I made someone feel genuinely understood.
Silence lets you let go
Recently, a hyped-up friend tried to engage me in a debate about the legalization of physician-assisted suicide. For moral and religious reasons, I’m against it, but try explaining that to an atheist. Eventually, Ms. Opinionated wore me down, and I assented, “You know what? I don’t really have an opinion about it. I’d be crushed if my family or friends went for it, but I’m not going to go around telling people what to do.” How many hamster-wheel political conversations do you get roped into that make you think of a dog chasing its tail? I enjoy not having opinions about things I know very little about and listening to people who do. How many of us are really qualified to sway legislation about euthanasia, and how many of us actually have that privilege?
I now cohabit with neat-freak relatives who cannot fathom that some people refrigerate leftovers for more than 24 hours or don’t make their beds with perfect hospital corners every morning or proclaim their opinions about everything. But when you’re too invested in your point-of-view, you dissuade others from airing theirs. A bosom buddy of mine was immensely popular in high school, and when I overheard her conversations I realized that 85 percent of what she said was empathizing and essentially parroting other people’s words, but she made everyone she came into contact with feel like a movie star.
Silence leads you to the right words
You know the expression: “Think before you speak”? I used to screen and edit my every thought so ruthlessly that real-time conversation exhausted me. By the time I had readied my response we’d be on another topic or someone had filched my punchline, and the words would die on my tongue. Each time this happened I’d wither farther, berate myself harder and edit still more ruthlessly like my math teacher with his gut-wrenching red marker. My every interpolation had to be sparklingly witty or of scholarly originality – avoid that cliché with a ten-foot pole, replace that adjective with a smarter-sounding one, and like, don’t go anywhere near the word “like”. Unless you, like, have a fully formed sentence in your head, like, don’t say anything. It reminded me of a TV advertisement I’d seen for cough medicine in which a woman’s torso was bound in rope – until she swallowed the magic syrup. I’ve learned that there is no magic syrup – not for me, not for anyone – and at least now I know no one can hear the wheels whirring frantically in my head, and I’ve trained them to turn faster. I have a new word for my editing now: I call it “impact”.