Friday, September 13, 2013

The Language of Silence



Living as I do on a noisy road,  silence is something that I crave for!!  My  husband and I often speak of a time when we can move out from here to a quieter place where we would not be woken up by the sound of groaning buses changing gears. We love going for holidays which are far away from the “maddening crowd” in remote locations just to enjoy the peace that silence can bring.

But tell me folks, is silence always peaceful?

I remember a time when my parents had had a fight. There was complete silence around. Neither would speak to each other. After a while Appa wanted to make up and attempted conversation but Amma just froze him with her silence. We sat through meal times speaking inane things just to thaw the sub zero temperature  around the place where Amma was seated. And finally when she decided to forgive and forget, it was back to the usual chatter and I was thankful for the noise ! 

Silence often conveys very effectively what words don’t.  While  this absence of noise can convey peace and tranquility at one level, it can also build tensions on the other.  There was a time in college when I had been called by a professor to discuss an assignment I had submitted. As I entered her room,  she motioned me to sit down as she continued with her work. I must have sat around quietly for about ten minutes with each minute building more tension in me until I could hold it no longer and asked her if I could come later. She said “No lets complete the discussion today. I will talk to you in a while” . That was another ten minutes before she finally took out my write up from her folder and started the discussions. Phew! Was  I relieved that she was talking! 

But silence does not always have to cause discomfort. It can also be comforting conveying a feeling of communion. I have experienced this aspect of silence on Sunday afternoons when all three of us are in the same room reading or writing.  It creates a  bonding that talking has never been able to achieve! 

 One does not have to be in the same place with someone to communicate through silence. Have you sometimes received some annoying emails at work that makes you want to just dash off a line telling the person sending it not to be stupid. But as many would tell you, it is best to ignore such mails. The silence from the other end should send the message across. This holds true for controversial mails. I have learnt that the hard way- to stay away from responding to them! 

“Hold your tongue” is probably the best advice you can give people like me who often want to say something or express an opinion. Staying silent often conveys what you want to without you having to choose your words.
Silence resonates terribly when we are lonely!! I  am experiencing it now  as my daughter is away visiting her grand parents. There is this complete absence of her mindless chatter and my raised voice yelling for her and at her! Even my husband mentioned that the  house was “echoing” with silence, the noise outside notwithstanding!

Silence conveys a whole lot of emotions- hostility being another important one. It is a bit different from what I had mentioned earlier regarding my parents. That was anger and annoyance talking through silence. But hostility is different.   It  arises out a sense of helplessness where a person wants to say a lot of things  but is probably powerless to voice them. You can sense this in the silence of people who work under difficult bosses, children who are taught by bullying teachers etc. It builds up over a period and turns into a roar that can be either heard or experienced as an action of revolt. 

While silence can make us delve deep into our thoughts and contemplate on some issues, it can also drive people like me crazy!! Silence makes my senses ultra sensitive. Simple sounds seem very sinister when there is silence all around – a swaying branch or a creaking hinge can make me break out in cold sweat when there is silence! Those are the times when I just have to reach for my phone! 

As a culture we Indians are more comfortable with sounds of speech rather than that of silence. We feel alienated by silence and are acutely conscious of lack of sounds. That is probably one of the reasons  why solitary confinement might be good punishment for criminals in our context!

But is it always wise to communicate through silence? Sometimes silence can be taken as consent for something! This is particularly true in the case of women. We are taught not to voice our feelings- particularly when we want to say “No”! Rape  and sexual harassment are examples of what silence can lead us into! And it is probably time men realize that silence from partners does not mean they are acquiescing whatever is being done to them. Women do not stay silent because they are feeling “shy” or being “coy”. They stay silent because of fear.

So while silence may be “Golden” I am all for “Speaking up” and “Speaking out’ when it is important.

The point about communicating through silence is to choose the message carefully and convey it strategically in the right context because silence can also be mistaken for timidity or lack of confidence. Just as words need to be chosen carefully while conveying a message so does their absence have to be managed!

What do you think?

9 comments:

anilkurup said...

The oxymoron that we often hear,"the deafening silence reverberated".
This is the case when as you mentioned people want to convey but do not and their silence speaks volumes.
It is I guess boils down to how you manage the situation- sometimes a word or a silence speaks everything whilst a lengthy monologue fails to evoke.

Speaking about the din and noise well one wishes often that times where prehistoric and man was just begining to walk.

SG said...

Nice post. My personal view is that we have to speak up when we strongly feel about an issue. If we do not speak up we have no reason to complain later. However, sometimes a well timed silence is more eloquent than a nice speech. I also admire those people who have a silent fast (Mouna Viradham) one day a week. I am told it is good for our body and mind.

Meera Sundararajan said...

Yes, @ SG a well timed silence!! The key words being "well timed"!!

@ Anil, deafening silence is certainly an oxymoron! There is a very lovely hindi song where Amitabh speaks a line that says , "me and my loneliness often hold a conversation" - silence makes thoughts in our heads speak out loud!

Christopher said...

That was a superb piece Meera on something that is so profound. A clinical look at silence may be that it is just the absence of sound/noise, but it can have loads of meaning in a given context. I hate noise but have learnt to come to terms with it having lived in noisy neighbourhods from my teens. I yearn for silence - not one that is forced by circumstance but one that occurs naturally - the one that is comfortable for any length of time.

I must add that a true friend is one in whose company, silence is comfortable.

Keep writing ...

KParthasarathi said...

You haven't left anything.You have covered every situation.I liked your post very much.

simple girl..... said...

I hate silence when I have people around me.. In my childhood days when I would do something not right in my das's opinion, he would simply stop talking to me.. no reprimanding or voicing his opinion, just total cut off to the extent of turning his face when he saw me.. so I hate silence due to this reasons.. it builds up a wall in between people..

However when I am alone I find silence fabulous.. lost in my own world without any sound..totally blissful

KParthasarathi said...

I liked this post Meera
Silence can mean many things-ignorance, an alibi, an insult or rebuff, indifference, a shy approval, a ploy to get out of piquant situations, a temporary expression of anger, a superiority complex or deafness.One should be astute to figure out the reason and may vary from individual to individual depending on the relationship.

Meera Sundararajan said...

@ KP completely agree with you about learning to figure out the language of silence!!

@ Simple girl, yes silence can be very unsettling and a way to drive a message across. But silence with oneself is truly peaceful

PURN!MA said...

Oh god, Meera! You have truly and so darn beautifully captured the essence of silence. your post comes in a full circle; silence indeed has different forms to it. And I couldn't agree more.

Coming to my POV, silence for me is a bliss. It brings me immense peace. Silence is my sanctuary; I can connect with myself in absolute stillness. (at the risk of sounding crass, I find music irritating)

Although I like being in conversation with people around me, after a while, I'd prefer being left to myself.

and yes, Indians are used to continuous banter and background noise. That's why often when parents visit their kids abroad, cannot wait to get back, my parents included. Whereas, I remember when I first went to the US, post marriage, I was in absolute love with the pristine silence. It truly was an escape from all that pre wedding and wedding chaos.

That said, silence can also be very eerie. Like every time someone says "I want to tell you something" and the gap in between is sickening. I say go ahead and tell me however disturbing the news is. don't aggravate the situation.

even now as I write this comment, there is so much noise in the background - rickshaw, harsh honks, my daughters wails, phone ringing... it is so difficult to put my mind to writing undisturbed. Siiigh, just for this moment, i wish I am transported to the Himalayas!

Let me say again, lovely, lovely write up!

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