For some reason, silence makes us uncomfortable.
Whether you’re socialising with friends, communicating with colleagues, or sitting in a seminar praying the lecturer doesn’t ask a question, the fear that you — or others — won’t have anything to say can be a source of anxiety.
According to one study of 580 students from 2007 to 2012, our fear of silence could be the result of constant media-generated background noise. We might not enjoy being in silence because we’ve simply grown up without it.
The Conversation reported that some students said their parents or grandparents always had the television on, regardless of whether anyone was watching it, and most grew up with at least one computer in their house. Social media is also now a central part of many students’ lives.
Another study from the Australian Institute of Family Studies argues that the participants’ “need for noise and their struggle with silence is a learned behaviour.”
What are we scared of?
This dislike of quiet seems counterintuitive. Meditation and “mindfulness” have been shown to reduce anxiety and stress, and these activities work best with less noise.
However, the quiet itself might not be what is making us uncomfortable in social situations. Often, it’s the gap in conversation that’s the concern. If you’re speaking to someone and you’re constantly worrying about what to say next so there isn’t an awkward pause, you may well find yourself getting there more quickly.
According to a Medium post by Psychology Behind, it’s all about confidence. Silent moments happen because two or more people “are simultaneously acknowledging their insecurities,” and both or all start blaming themselves for the lull in conversation. However, the less confident of the group is probably at fault, because they are waiting for the more confident participants to lead the discussion. This just prolongs the silence until someone has the confidence to start a new topic.
Silence isn’t something to be feared.
But is sitting in silence really that bad? According to Dr Alex Lickerman, a physician and assistant vice president for Student Health and Counseling Services at the University of Chicago, the problem is that many people don’t see silence as a tool.
In a blog post on Psychology Today, he recalls a time where a seminar leader asked the room a question, and waited until somebody responded. Nobody knew the correct answer, but he was willing to wait until someone ventured a guess. From that guess — which was incorrect — an interesting discussion was sparked.
When Lickerman asked the leader how he remained so unfazed by such a long pause, which had seemed to drag on for about five minutes, the leader responded that, in fact, the silence had only lasted 30 seconds, even though it had seemed to last longer. That was enough time to get someone in the room to say something — anything — to get the silence to stop.
Lickerman argues that silence can actually give us skills that are often overlooked, such as being able to listen well.
“Most of us engage in listening only as a way of waiting until it’s our turn to speak,” he says. “If you can’t resist thinking about what you want to say when listening, focus instead specifically on being silent.”
In doing this, your ability to concentrate will improve, and people will appreciate the face you’re actually taking in what they’re saying.
Being silent also gives you the chance to think before you speak, “increasing the likelihood that what you say and do will be on target, intelligent, and useful,” says Lickerman.
If all else fails, in the Financial Times, David Tang offers a solution if you find that a group of people — such as guests at a dinner party — need some prompting.
Tang’s mother believed in the theory that conversation lulls occurred at either 20 to or 20 past the hour. This is supposedly where the urban myth that Abraham Lincoln died at 8:20 p.m. came from, because silence followed.
This isn’t actually true — he was shot at 10.13 p.m. and died the next day at 7:22 a.m. — but Tang says that to “resurrect a dinner party” he would simply use this trivia, asking the group:”Do you know why we have just fallen silent? It’s all because of President Lincoln…”
Whether you use Tang’s trick or rely on your own, having random facts on hand can be a sure fire way to spark a conversation.
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