This a guest article written by Emma Gwillim, a brand strategist and coach, and freelance writer of editorial and commercial content. Emma also publishes a monthly newsletter Note To Self which features trends, tools and interviews that celebrate life’s simple pleasures and guides you to nurture body, mind and soul.
“Would anyone like to volunteer?” I was already over-committed and knew, way in advance of this moment, that I should not (or, more accurately, could not) take on any more. But, in that deafening silence, I willingly raised my hand with a smile on my face while, internally, I was livid with myself and quickly calculating how I could magic up some “spare time”.
The silence won.
Have you been there? Maybe one of your girlfriends’ birthdays is on the horizon and someone needs to sort the gift or arrange the night out – is it you that is the first to step forward? If you’re a people-pleaser, it’s probably always you.
Or maybe it’s social silence that fills you with dread – that lull in conversation when small talk has been exhausted and your mind races to find any thing to say just to fill the vacuum.
What is it about silence that creates so much social awkwardness?
It turns out that the cringy feeling around silence is a learned behaviour. We’ve been conditioned to crave background noise and avoid silence. As someone that originates from a large family that was filled with the hum of family life, I can relate. A report of a six-year study of undergraduates found that the constant accessibility and exposure to background media has created a mass of people who fear silence. There’s a known phobia – sedatephobia, the fear of silence – which is said to be becoming increasingly common.
Anyone who has practiced meditation will be very aware of the internal struggle that silence creates. Silence requires discipline even when you’re sat alone. In company though, it can be a whole new level of awkward.
In reality though, it’s not the actual silence that is awkward but our internal response to it that creates the anxiety.
What might be underneath the discomfort? A need for approval or an expectation to perform in some way? A need to be in control and avoid uncertainty? Maybe to overcompensate for shyness? Back to me volunteering myself against my better judgement – the split-second thought was “what will they think of me if I don’t offer?” as though the expectation was on me alone (and not the other 10 people there too). Having awareness of what lies beneath the discomfort may make you less likely to jump in to fill the silence so quickly next time.
Silence can have a purpose. It can even be used to your advantage.
Here are some ways in which silence can be your superpower:
- It shows respect: In some cultures, silence is seen as a sign of respect while over-talking is seen as rude.
- It gets attention: Abraham Lincoln said: “the more a man speaks, the less he is understood.” We’re so unused to quiet in our on-demand way-of-life that, when there’s a pause, our attention is focused on working out why the conversation has momentarily stopped. The listener(s) are anticipating you speaking.
- It creates meaningful conversations: Silence creates time to think – for both people. It gives the opportunity to reflect and consider a genuine response.
- It shows confidence: When paired with positive body language, silence is a strength of a skillful communicator. Words only account for 10% of what is expressed in conversation. Tone and pace makes up 35% but it’s non-verbal communication that is most telling (55%). If your body language is strong and positive, for example maintaining eye contact, that silence is instead filled with connection between you and another.
- It makes you a better listener: Silence allows you to check your understanding of what you’ve heard. When you actively listen, you paraphrase what you’ve heard and ask questions for clarification rather than half-listening while you cue what you’re going to say next.
- It develops intimacy: We’ve all got that person that you can sit in comfortable silence with, where there’s no need to speak but to simply be in each other’s company.
Give it a try today. Notice your pattern in conversation and practice taking a beat of a few seconds before you respond. Maybe you’ll see silence as less of an awkwardness and more as a subtle super-power.