The Rant

Silence Is Golden, So Shut Up

Why are people so afraid of a little quiet?

"There it is," I said to the man I live with. He and I were out to dinner, and behind us was the phenomenon we very often encounter. A woman was having dinner with a man, and every time I looked over at her, she was talking.

And talking.

And talking.

The waitress brought them over a bottle of wine, and I glanced over from time to time to see if maybe that would soothe the chaos of words tumbling from her like umbrellas and shoeboxes when you open a too-full closet. Nope. I don't even know how she was physically able to drink the wine, because that would've involved taking a break from the speaking. But soon enough that bottle was empty.

It was probably her beleaguered dining partner who drank most of it.

When we left the restaurant, she was outside, and I hope you're sitting down, but I need to report to you the shocking news that she was talking. This time, on the phone. The words were once again rushing out of her, without a break.

Why are people so afraid of a little silence?

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And Old Chatty Cathy, there, was hardly an isolated incident. I also see it at work: That person who might be otherwise perfectly lovely, but who has no idea he or she has droned on too long. How is it that some people are oblivious to the fact that whomever they're speaking at is backing away, or has turned back to their computer or is seeking a noose?

Notice I said, "speaking at," because that's all it is. The person who talks too much doesn't pause to ask for your opinion, or to hear a story from you. It's just an endless stream of what I guess they think is one riveting story after another.

And here's the thing—you might just have one riveting story after another. But no one wants to hear them all at once. The Most Interesting Man in the World is not interesting because he speaks endlessly. What makes you interesting is a little air of mystery. Do you really think the Mona Lisa held anyone hostage in her cubicle while she droned on?

Sometimes people want to tell their stories, as well, or at least be able to react to yours, and not just nod exhaustedly as you stampede breathlessly to your next topic.

I think I'm sensitive to people who talk too much because I have the potential to be one of them. First of all, my grandmother, the one I'm turning into, was what you might call a jabberer. Sometimes I would actually time how long she was able to go without speaking, and that time rarely exceeded seven seconds.

My parents got divorced when I was an adolescent, and I spent Wednesdays and Saturdays with my father, who was always a pretty quiet person. I'm going to hazard a wild guess and say maybe it's because his mother could not go seven seconds without talking.

We'd spend a lot of my visitation time in the car: driving to boring stereo stores, or going to eat somewhere. The point is, I felt like I had to fill the silence while we were in the car. I felt like otherwise, we weren't having fun, or we weren't connecting. So I'd talk. I'd save up things to tell him during the week. I'd form opinions on things I knew he cared about: music or politics. Oh, how I tried to fill the silence.

Until one day in the car, my father said, "Hey, Karen, why don't you be quiet for awhile?" I was stunned. And hurt. Most of the lessons I learn in this life come from being stunned and hurt.

But you know what? I really did learn a lesson. That you don't have to do your nervous-talking thing. That when you're really close to someone, silence can be companionable. Sure, tell your partner all about your bad day at work. Tell your friend how something made you think of an old joke between you. That stuff is great. But throwing endless words at someone does not make you closer. It also does not make you heard. I promise people are tuning you out when you ramble too much.

Now that the weather's warmer, the man I live with and I will head to our front porch at the end of the day. We watch the bats and fireflies, swat mosquitos. "That's what you get, landing on me," he'll say to a mosquito as he murders it.

But really, that's the most talking we usually do. We sit quietly sometimes for 20 minutes, half an hour. Sometimes we'll hold hands. Last night, he sighed.

"You OK?" I asked him.

"Happy," he said.

And that said everything.

Tags: friendship