Silence isn’t awkward

Appreciating silence can help us become better communicators and friends

Robert Liu

We’ve all experienced it. One moment, we’re cheerfully talking to our friends and the conversation is flowing, and the next, there’s an uncomfortable pause in the conversation and pressure begins to mount. We could bring up a new topic or crack a joke in an attempt to revive the conversation, resuming as normal, but only for silence to strike again. Whether we’re socializing with friends and adults or sitting in a classroom discussion, the fear that we or others won’t have anything to say is a source of constant anxiety.

Silence also appears in one-on-one interactions, often creating even greater discomfort for both parties. Awkward silences are most common when interacting with people we aren’t particularly close with.

For many of us, conversing with acquaintances or strangers can be difficult — we struggle to sustain conversation while also trying to avoid sounding awkward. Often times, the result is an uncomfortable lull in the conversation, when neither party knows whether to talk or remain silent.

Our dislike of silence seems counterintuitive — silence and meditation have been shown to actually reduce anxiety and stress, rather than stimulate it. However, the silence itself isn’t what makes us feel uncomfortable. Rather, it’s the gap in conversation.

A 2011 study led by the University of Groningen in the Netherlands found that silence in a conversation starts to feel unbearable after just four seconds. In addition, participants in the study reported feeling anxious and a lack of self-assurance after prolonged silence in a difficult conversation. When the conversations remained fluid, however, participants felt “feelings of belonging, self-esteem and social validation.”

This may lead us to wonder why we’ve been trained to feel that silence is negative, or why we often feel the need to constantly be conversing, regardless of how pointless our conversations may become.

At the most basic level, silence represents rejection to us, which we, as humans, despise. In the same study, participants trapped in awkward silences reported feeling “anxious, rejected and less self-assured.” Furthermore, a 2012 study led by the British Psychological Society concluded that social awkwardness is what we feel when the situation “threatens our goal of being accepted by others.” These hardwired instincts surface when silences arise, causing us to feel awkward and unpleasant.

However, we shouldn’t react to silence in this way. Instead of constantly trying to steer away from an unavoidable aspect of life, we should embrace it for what it should be. Silence is precious — it’s an effective tool in many different scenarios, it’s reflective and it allows us to concentrate on the moment.

During an age where information is disseminated rapidly, we can all learn to appreciate more silence in our lives at MVHS. In class, for example, valuing silence can impart us with skills that we often overlook, such as the ability to listen intently and think before we speak. Rather than listening only as a means to wait until it’s our turn to talk, we can thoughtfully listen to others, learning from their unique insights while striving to improve our concentration. Changing these habits can enhance our communication skills, allowing our speech to become more accurate and coherent.

Silence has the potential to benefit our social lives as well, by helping us create deeper and more genuine friendships. Being able to simply sit with someone in silence can truly create a special connection — if we’re able to be with them in utter silence without feeling awkward, it means we’re comfortable around that person. In many cases, continuing to painfully sustain that long and forced conversation is more awkward than just enjoying the silence.