Since When Has Silence Become Such A Bad Thing?


I first noticed it my freshman year of college — the biggest group of strangers I ever had to meet at once. From moving into a dorm to enrolling in five classes (and the one year I thought I was meant for sorority rush), I was ensconced in 3,000 new people with one task: make new friends. That meant a lot of first conversations, a lot of get-to-know-you lunches, and study dates, and drinking sessions. 

And every time I talked to someone new, I noticed there was this frantic scramble to fill the air between us. On the way to class with a new classmate, alone in the dorm with my new roommates — it didn’t matter what you said, but silence was unacceptable. Kind of terrifying, even. I found myself asking about things I didn’t care about, complimenting outfits I didn’t like – even completely making up stories about high school, just so it wouldn’t be quiet. To avoid the dreaded awkward silence.

I understand that the problem probably stems from the fact that when you’re still trying to figure your life out, first impressions are a big deal. Plus, the “awkward” label has become a scarlet letter in our society today (right behind “clingy”). Nobody wants to be called that dreaded word, because it conveys a sense of pathetic social ineptitude that we’d all like to think we’ve left in our past or never embodied at all. If anything, we’re just “shy.”

But people say that the moment you’re able to fall into a long comfortable silence with someone, you know you’ve reached a certain point of profundity in your relationship. You’re finally best friends, orreal significant others who no longer feel the pressure to fill the silence with empty words. You understand each other on a deep enough level to know that the silence isn’t awkward, there’s just nothing to say – and that’s okay.

So I wonder why we can’t reach this point sooner in our other relationships. If we can’t think of something to say next, can’t it just be okay to not say anything at all? I’d think this would let us focus more wholly on what the other person is saying, instead of trying to brainstorm a response the whole time they’re talking. Sometimes it feels like I’m just sifting through the other person’s words for things to say next, and it’s panic-attack stressful.

And maybe if we ourselves were more comfortable in that silence, it wouldn’t be so awkward after all. It would just be a lull in conversation, or a chance for the other person to fill the quiet. As I’ve started to build my life in the real world and had to go through some of those college meet-and-greet situations all over again, I’ve tried to keep this in mind. I’m four years older and four times as confident (….), and it doesn’t seem as necessary to compliment someone’s neon yellow American Apparel jumpsuit just to fill the silence.

Plus, by only speaking when you have something genuine to say, you actually get to know people a lot better – which means you’ll get to that coveted point of “best friend” comfortable silence a lot more quickly, which means you’ll have a lot more best friends, which means eventually, you’ll never have to meet anybody new again.

image – B.Riordan.