It’s not that I’m afraid of silence. I’m just not accustomed to it.
I’m a rather high-strung person. I talk too much. I ask too many questions, I fidget, and I worry myself to the point of stomachaches. I whistle as I walk. I over-analyze everything. If I don’t keep myself occupied with some train of thought, I tend to get nervous. Quiet sounds the quietest for people like me. It’s a great relief, yet it hits us the hardest.
The impression a lot of people have is that silence is staleness, and not saying something equals having nothing to say. Much as I hated to admit it, I saw some truth in this. Awkward people beget awkward silences. Or so I thought.
Do you know those scenes in movies where a couple are seated at a restaurant, idly forking at over-cooked chicken and confirming that, yeah, the wine isn’t bad? Society’s script leads us to believe if you are one of those people at one of those restaurants, it’s near-certain you’ll either get divorced or strangle your spouse. (Depends on the wine, really.) Exempt again, I thought. I’d never really had those moments. I’m a romantic. I don’t stare at ceilings. I don’t order the chicken. I order good wine. I talk!
Before virtually every social encounter I have, I anticipate the conversation rather obsessively. What should or shouldn’t I ask this person? What might they like to know about me? Do I come off as cocky, naïve, or neurotic? (Probably.) It’s both exciting and unnerving, because I feel as though I arrive prepared. But I’m also left disappointed when an encounter falls flat. In overthinking the encounter, I leave no room to be surprised. Though we all have our quirks, no sane man drafts up blueprints for a coffee date. Pity me if you will, but I can’t help myself.
I’m not exempt. The truth is, I’ve sat right across from you at that table, fork-in-hand. Every single relationship known to man endures dinners sans dialogue. We all fall silent, but we dust ourselves off. There are nights you just have to eat your chicken and drink your wine and half-smile. This applies to every meal, and every facet of relationships. It’s taken a while, but I’ve learned that, too. You’re not going to wake up with a pillow pressed over your head because you couldn’t chime up a decent chat. She’s okay with it.
My mental agonizing was made all the more complex when I moved to France two years ago. How might one micromanage an interaction that will take place in a language they have a wobbly-at-best understanding of?
Exhaustively, that’s how.
Upon heading abroad, I lusted for the sweet taste of croissants and, equally, a place where — even had there been a Fox News — I’d be deaf to all the political yelling. I wouldn’t need to make small talk with a neighbor, and didn’t really need to have an opinion on most things. As the story goes with expatriation, I could become any kind of person I’d like without a single person taking notice. I could put an end to my erratic rituals. I could finally learn to accept silence, much as I didn’t have a choice. Almost immediately, my behavior changed.
During bike rides to dinner parties, I drew up mental flash cards. Not for verb conjugations, but phrases and responses that would ensure I wasn’t the one tearing away at the social fabric. I didn’t want to speak English, but I also don’t want to speak like a baby. So I just downloaded a ton of podcasts and kept quiet.
I called home less and less frequently. Sent fewer postcards, too. I continued to document my surroundings through photography, as it’s a rather discreet hobby which has always kept me busy. My writing output, formerly prodigious, became concise to the point that I was writing poetry almost exclusively. My living situation didn’t allow for guests, so I’d resign most weekdays to solo art projects over a bottle of wine and one of the radio shows. Heading a few metro stops into the city seemed exhausting. Given my routine, it often was.
For better or worse, I fell silent.
Like all who hibernate, though, I slowly woke from my isolation. I made friends with people I wouldn’t have back home, and took interest in girls who would have normally caught me off guard for one reason or another. I hung my camera up for a while, and wrote longer essays again, and spoke English. I spoke French, too, although the better I got, the less I seemed to speak. I no longer had anything to prove. Instead of doing my flash cards, I spent my bike rides translating song lyrics. I felt slightly less insane. Neither loud nor silent. A nice balance.
After a while, micromanaging social interactions became more of a novelty than an impulse. I still feared being boring or misunderstood, but I think my fears were less detectable. I had quiet dinners, and loud ones. I read the bold upper-cased headlines in French, as they had electoral fiascos and financial woes of their own. I left social interactions caring less about how I was perceived. I ignored American politics and my state of under-employment and got off the Internet for a while. I still didn’t order the chicken, though, and had nice wine. Obviously.
Alas, I might be just as anxious as before. It seems as though they manifest themselves — dare I say it? — in a more “normal” way. I don’t feel like a headcase anymore, or at least as often. I look forward to not having anything to say, too. I’ve learned a lot from prolonged pauses in conversations, the space between words, the quiet bike rides across town…
In shutting up, I’ve learned silence can be a beautiful thing. The rest — at least sometimes — is noise.