Wm Haefeli cartoon
Cartoon from the New Yorker by William Haefeli. Buy his artwork here.

I spent the past weekend at my in-laws’ in Vancouver, celebrating a special birthday. They’re wonderful people, and I really enjoy their company. But since my last visit there I’ve Let-Myself-Change a lot. I’m a much happier and healthier person, more resilient, more attentive, more appreciative, and quieter.

It’s this last quality that those who know me (or at least knew me) seem to find disconcerting. I’m delighted just to be in the company of people I love. I no longer feel the need to fill the silence with conversation, and, when I do talk, it’s more thoughtful, and (to me at least) it’s about things that matter.

I’ve noticed this repeatedly over the past year. Apparently, men listening and paying attention without talking is a suspicious activity. Men don’t observe, it seems, they stare, and a man who appears to be genuinely observing must be a starer practiced at not being too obvious about it. (The gender of the person being observed doesn’t seem to make a difference in this regard.)

And, apparently, a man listening without frequently interjecting is also behaving suspiciously. He must be bored, or patronizing, or distracted by thoughts resonating in his head. If he doesn’t talk a lot to confirm he is listening, well, then, he must not be listening. (Perhaps this is true of women as well, though I suspect that, in conversation with men at least, such behaviour is not even noticed.)

We live in an age when, at any point in time, 2/3 of all drivers and 1/3 of all pedestrians are in cellphone conversations (my own recent survey, another act of silent observation on my part). So there is no room, no time, for observation, for just listening, for paying attention. I speak, therefore I am.

In a singles joint, nothing is more awkward than silence — it is simply unacceptable behaviour. It is considered, I think, a sign of egomania, or voyeurism, or a sign of social awkwardness or social retardation. It is tolerable if you’re very attractive, or a celebrity with an entourage, but otherwise not.

In business meetings, paradoxically, those who speak rarely are often afforded exceptional attention when they do break their silence — at least if they’re men. Women in business, for the most part, aren’t often afforded attention to what they say no matter how they go about it. Even, dismayingly, by other women.

In Second Life, as in real life, it appears that it is up to the male to instigate and dominate each conversation. He is judged by the cleverness of what he says. Women, alas, are judged by their attentiveness, and the quality of their body language — conveyed through something called animation overrides (AOs), a brilliant and diabolical invention by some animation cultural anthropologist too smart for his own good. There is something eerie about this, when this software offers such opportunity to defy real world cultural norms, that so much effort is invested to reproduce them.

I think I am destined to live out much of my remaining life in silence. Both men and women expect me to talk, while I usually prefer to just enjoy the company of those I love, in silence. And these days I love most people, instinctively, without judgement. We are who we are, and we do what we must.

I don’t mind the silence (in fact I find it liberating; it ‘creates space’ for other things to happen, and for things to be noticed). But those whose company I keep seem to find my silence somewhere between unnerving and excruciating.

So, to the women I sit silently beside in the airport bar, or meet wordlessly in Second Life; to the guys in the meetings who mistake my quiet attentiveness for disdain or disengagement; and to those I love who find the silence of my company deafening, my apologies. No offense intended. I simply enjoy your company. I’m sorry you mistake my smilefor something it is not.

Category: Conversation
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12 Responses to Shhh

  1. Earl says:

    Dave,Can definitely relate to your posts. Sometimes, I encounter having to explain my silence to my wife. I simply tell her that “when I have nothing to say, I say nothing”. At other times, people mistakenly think my silence is because I’m a snob, rather than I’m observing and processing.

  2. Will says:

    Thanks Dave. Silence is a wonderful teacher. Sad more people don’t notice this. “I think I am destined to live out much of my remaining life in silence.” This struck me a happy state of affairs and a positive aspiration.

  3. Sean says:

    Dave,I love this post and can relate to the journey of change of that you are on. A couple of thoughts:1. On silence – at the moment I still work for a Fortune 50 company. It is a company with a culture where middle management, if present at a meeting, MUST speak. It seems to be an unwritten rule that to validate your level you must always have something to say – even if it means merely repeating what someone else has already said. It seems that silence means you have no value to add and you are being paid to add value – SO SPEAK!The group I work in approaches things very differently. When we are asked to come in and help with a problem the first thing we do is get all interested parties in the room at one time and ask one or two simple questions and then let them go. They can talk for 45 minutes amongst themselves and we can watch the dynamics and learn what the real issues are. One time we did this and after the 45 minutes got the question “Are you guys going to say anything?”After the meeting one of those individuals pulled me aside and said “You guys were SO intimidating”. When I asked why she said it was because it was not the norm to sit and listen and that we should probably explain what we are going to do because it really put them off.2. I personally relate to your story of silence being interpreted as aloofness or some other negative behavior. I have tried to do better at showing engagement and active listening, while not necessarily having to speak. But that does not always work – I find my self having to explain that I will always jump in when I having something of value to add. I do find the double standard you speak two of the male/female “rules of engagement” to be quite trying.Thank you again for this forum

  4. Evan says:

    As a woman, I might be an anomaly, but I prefer silence and often seek it. I don’t enjoy small talk or empty conversations of any type. When information must be exchanged, I prefer the noun-verb type of discourse. I do enjoy deep, meaningful or interesting conversations, but usually only after my quota of silence is filled. My parents gave me a man’s name. Perhaps it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in a lot of ways. Or at least in this way, my behaviour is more male-like. I find that I have more male friends than female friends and my husband is happy that he rarely, if ever, hears the question: “What are you thinking?” In fact, I think he asks me that question more than I ask him. After our daughter was born, The silence went out the window. I miss it somedays.

  5. Tina Su says:

    I love this post. Keep up the good work.Love & Gratitude,TinaThink Simple. Be Decisive.

  6. Mariella says:

    Just don´t stay silent here…!! hmmm… ¿why not? How would it sound like : a silent blog post….?

  7. David Drews says:

    Dave,Congrats on finding anew the value of silence. It’s always more fun to listen than to be obligated to jabber.Yakking pointlessly has been a feature of US culture for a long time. Frances Trollope penned such observations in her book titled “Domestic Manners of the Americans” (a most comical read) dating from the late 1820s. Jacques Barzun reiterated her observations in his book titled “The House of Intellect” in 1956.Keep up the great posts. They are invigorating for me and, I suspect, a great many others.David

  8. Your post reminded me of John Cage’s 4 minutes 33 seconds, a musical composition in which no music in played :-)

  9. Renee says:

    Interesting. As a woman, nobody notices if you’re not talking. Women are much quieter than men, in almost every situation (workplace most of all). In fact, groups of men will rarely invite a woman to talk – you have to actively make room for yourself in a conversation. This is true particularly with older men. I’ve been in conversation circles with male colleagues where I’ve been completely ignored – I don’t mean consciously; when I seek eye contact they seem genuinely startled that I’m there (if they ever look my way). Perhaps this is because men just speak up, they don’t wait to be invited to speak – they assume it’s alright.Perhaps this is an issue with my own presence, perhaps it’s an age thing – I thought so at first, but I was talking to a friend of mine who is an FTM transsexual, and he was saying that it really is incredible how differently you get treated as a guy – he noted specifically that people pay attention to you. They look at you. They listen to you (presumably because, as you’ve noticed, they expect you to speak). He said that he gets treated with a lot more respect by store clerks and on the job, too. But he specifically said that men DO NOT MAKE EYE CONTACT. Only if you’re being directly challenging, or you’re cruising. Extremely brief eye contact is alright, but nothing prolonged, or you will get extremely hosile reactions. But women, he said, always make eye contact, and expect it – he said that it took him a long time to stop automatically making such direct eye contact, because it becomes reflexive.So there’s a lot going on. It’s fun to watch it with this stuff in mind.

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