So, if you are too tired to speak, sit next to me, for I, too am fluent in silence.
— R. Arnold
Why do some people need to fill blissful silence with chatter?
Conversation has a purpose, but if that need is met, if the purpose is fulfilled, then why continue?
I am not a particularly good conversationalist. For this reason, I really don’t like cocktail style parties where mingling and engaging in trivial chit-chat is the order of the day. I know you can potentially meet some seriously interesting people this way, but you can also meet a whole load of people who really only like the sound of their own voices.
Some people are wired to need ongoing conversation. A lull makes them uncomfortable. Not me. The only discomfort I feel is when the other person is clearly feeling discomfort; then my need to be nice kicks in and I become more uncomfortable trying to dream up topics for conversation.
I am not saying that I don’t enjoy talking to people. If we share a common interest and the conversation flows easily, then all is well. But once we falter, once we start saying, ‘Ok … then …’ — that’s when I need to get out. Because I know the other person won’t be happy to sit there in silence, and we are going to have a tense several minutes before one of us comes up with another topic.
A few of my friends seem to have an unlimited bank of conversation topics — and that’s fine. I am a good listener. Although I am guilty of occasionally allowing my mind to wander, on the whole I think I interject well to show interest, and I occasionally add something meaningful to the conversation. Even with these friends, though, the conversation eventually dries up.
The world would be a better place if we could just acknowledge the end of a social conversation and move on, ‘Excellent — conversation is over. See you next time we have something to talk about.’ Think about it: no more sitting and twiddling of thumbs; no more rocking back and forth, eyes averted, racking your brain for something else to talk about; no more conversations about the weather …
Telephone conversations are my least favourite. You cannot see the person at the other end. Therefore, you cannot read their facial expressions and any tiny bit of silence is interpreted as, ‘Are you still there?’ On the phone you need to keep talking and making noises. Silence is not an option.
When I was younger I had a friend who loved talking on the phone. She would ring me and just want a chat. The problem was, she would often call when she was in the middle of eating dinner. Eating noises over the phone are not acceptable! Just hang up, I hear you say. Easier said than done. I am sure everyone knows at least one person who is impossible to get off the phone. You could say your house was burning down and the response would be, ‘Ok … but before you go …’ This was my friend. (She doesn’t do this anymore … because now we have text messages … and caller ID.)
Another person I used to know would ring me and say, ‘Hi … this is (name) …’, then nothing. This person rang me! It annoyed me that I was being made responsible for starting a conversation I didn’t want to have. We ended up having many long silences on the phone because I flatly refused to initiate conversation. (Actually, seeing this in writing makes it look a bit creepy. But it wasn’t.)
The phrase ‘sitting in companionable silence’ is bandied about quite a bit in literature. I believe I have read something along those lines more than once in Di Morrissey’s books. But, does anyone actually do this?
These days you could be excused for thinking that couples, or sometimes groups of people in restaurants are ‘sitting in companionable silence’. Look closer though. Mobile phones! The need for communication is being eradicated by mobile phones and the compulsion to check Facebook, emails, internet and SMS every five seconds. God forbid you miss out on something while at dinner with your beloved.
But this is not silence! Nor is it particularly companionable.
I reiterate — conversation should have a purpose. You need to communicate something, so you have a conversation. Conversation for the sake of filling the void with talk should not be necessary.
People will often offer to ‘come and sit with you’ while you are waiting for a plane, or waiting for a medical procedure. The gesture is a lovely one. They are offering out of friendship and compassion.
I have been the recipient of many such offers of late. While these friends (and family) are ones I love to talk to, the reality is we may well be making contrived conversation as we wait. That, for me anyway, is not relaxing. If we were able to sit in true companionable silence, with neither of us worried about keeping the other entertained, then that would be fine. I can’t see it happening though, which is why I (hopefully) politely decline.
I find it easier to sit with my own thoughts, and maybe a book. I do not mind my own company at all. Loneliness is not something I have ever felt.
Talking is nice and certainly has its place, but silence is better.