Thursday, September 15, 2011

awkward silence

I am not going to say it doesn't exist.  It definitely exists.  Or only shallow people can't stand the quiet.  Or that our culture is too noisy.  I am going to say, however, that true awkward silence is more precious than we think.  That it is a prison that ought not to be hastily escaped.

In an improv scene, there are moments when you realize someone should say something or moments after someone did say something, and it was a  Do not be afraid!  Step into the moment and try to weave the off-words back into the fabric of the scene by making the tangent long enough to loop back and add interest to the pattern.  At least, that is what I've been taught, but it does not come naturally.  However, there is redemption even in the unsuccessful attempt.  People have done it for me.

A pregnant pause that is barren adds weight to the words that break it.  And every second that ticks by adds more meaning.  That is why perhaps it is so scary to break!  Because no question seems heavy enough to break through, for example, the blind date quiet.  We sit around, pushing our peas, afraid that after our meager question, the one word answer will make the silence even heavier.  Sometimes after a few of these attempts, the awkwardness becomes palpable like a thick suffocating blanket.

At this point, there are those who choose to acknowledge the awkwardness, hoping through some meta-conversation about the conversation, laughter will aright the flagging ship.  Sometimes this does happen, but mostly, I think it is a bit cowardly.  Plus it assumes awkward silence is inherently a bad thing, as opposed to an exhilarating intersection in a conversation with 1,000 different roads to walk down and a brief moment to choose which one to take, rather than just letting the conversation take you places, which is albeit more comfortable, but usually ends up in you telling an anecdote you've told a million times or talking mindlessly about movies.  Not that those things are inherently bad either, but perhaps the awkward silence doesn't need breaking as much as we need to allow it to break us.  Out of our habits, out of our normal mode of speaking in which we easily forget there is a consciousness looking and listening back at us.  It awakens us to that deafening roar on the other side of silence, gives us a moment to breathe, and then speak life to the face of the Other, receiving life from them.

Slowly, we learn to catch each other, and the silence becomes less and less awkward and more and more comforting, making us wiser.  Quick to listen, slow to speak.  If awkward silence is a hole we are falling down, it is a lot less anxiety producing if you know at the bottom you won't die a fiery social death, but will land on feather pillows in a room you've never been before.  Maybe you'll like it, maybe not, but it's worth the attempt to push through, to hear and love the stranger at the party who you apparently have nothing in common with.

May we have the grace not to desperately seek common ground or an excuse to leave but to tread lightly on another's uncommon ground, enjoying the new roads or rooms and savoring the kind of redemption that only awkward silence can bring.


1 comment:

Martyn Wendell said...

Well said! It is so hard to permit a protracted lull because of the questions it naturally elicits - am I boring? Are they boring? Are we boring together?? - but I agree that to identify it and laugh at it is typically the weaker choice, and also that a sustained silence may often provide the clearing for a new, unprecedented direction in conversation. Insightful and wise post! I enjoy reading your blog when I have the time.