Growing up, one of my favorite television shows was Northern Exposure. It was the story of a high strung New Yorker that was sent to a remote area of Alaska to work off his medical school debts. He runs across a number of eccentric characters while in Cicely, Alaska. The character I enjoyed the most was Marilyn, his Inuit secretary. She was a regular on the show but she rarely spoke. Marilyn was silent; by choice. She chose her words carefully and used them sparingly. Joel, the New York doctor, could not understand how she could be so quiet. It was maddening for him.
Many of us are not comfortable with silence. We do not like gaps in conversations, we don’t like being unsure of what we should say. We are so uncomfortable with silence that we will often begin talking before our conversation partner(s) have finished what they are saying. We also find those that are silent to be disconcerting. We aren’t sure we can trust them. We often wonder what they are thinking, why they don’t talk us, are they secretly judging us.
The person I’m currently dating is actually extremely quiet in public. When we are one on one he chats non-stop. When another person is added to the mix he becomes very quiet. Part of this is due to his shyness. His silence often confounds our friends. They are all very outgoing and big talkers. He is anathema to them. He and I have discussed his silence. He is shy and his silence is often a wall he puts up to not “embarrass himself.” (His feeling, not mine.)
There is another part to his silence. He likes to observe. He can recount everything that happens when we are out with a group; right down to the smallest aspects of conversations. His silence makes him a great listener and observer.
I, on the other hand, talk too much. I like the sound of my own voice. I often joke with my students that the reason I became a teacher was because I like to talk so much. (That’s only partly a joke.) I like to talk so much that I have been guilty of talking over my students as they are giving me answers in class or asking questions. As my practice has progressed I’ve taken note of how I interrupt students and have made every attempt to curb this. I want to listen to my students. I want to listen to my loved ones. I want to be present with them and part of that presence is knowing when to be silent.
Now, the motivation of the silence is what’s important. Why are we talkative? Why are we silent? I talk because silence has always made me uncomfortable. I worry that I’m not connecting with the person I’m conversing with. I also worry that the discomfort I feel because of the silence will spill over to the person I’m talking with and then we’ll both be uncomfortable. So, my words become my wall. The person I am dating is the exact opposite. His silence is his wall. He is silent so he doesn’t have to engage or look silly to those he is talking to.
The reason I liked Marilyn on Northern Exposure so much was because her silence was genuine. She didn’t speak because she chose not to speak. When she had something important to say she would say it in as few words as possible. It is what I would like to strive toward.
When I teach my students about the history of Ancient China and Ancient India I go in depth into Buddhism. When we discuss Right Speech I tell my students that Buddhists will not use words that harm others and to keep from harming others Buddhists choose their words sparingly and carefully. Keeping in mind that it is difficult enough to see shades of gray; it’s helpful to know that 6th graders tend to see the world in black and white. So they take this idea very literally. As we get older and “mature” we know there are many gray shades. We know that when I say Buddhists choose their words carefully that I am in no way being literal, that I am speaking of what Buddhists strive to do.
I don’t strive to be utterly silent. I enjoy talking. I strive to be silent when I need to be more present and a better listener. What do you strive for? Do you find you talk too much? Why do you jabber on? Do you find you are silent when you know you should be using your voice to engage with people to make stronger connections? Why do you hide behind your silence?
Talking or choosing silence are neither good nor bad; each has their benefits and pitfalls. The key is to recognize which is most effective for the situation we are faced with. Next time you catch yourself rambling start by quieting your mouth, then the mind will follow.