Embracing silence: When not speaking up makes us more human

Silence is in disgrace. Long gone are the proverbial times when silence was golden, a sign of being a philosopher, or at least an indication that a fool was behaving wisely[1]. These days, politicians who stay silent are accused of sitting it out, business people who stay silent are suspected of manipulations, artists who stay silent are pitied as lacking critical self-marketing skills, and human beings who stay silent are often simply not seen, heard, or otherwise acknowledged by their fellow human beings[2]. Being human, it seems, is mostly defined as speaking up, making a contribution, posting something, leaning in, showing off – in other words: Actively doing something that can (and will) be perceived by others.

Then, there’s silence as a product: Earplugs and noise-cancelling headphones for those who travel, work, or live in tumultuous times and places; “quiet times” blocked out in office calendars as well as offline hours, days, weeks, and months for those involved with (or addicted to) electronic communications; silent retreats as the pinnacle of modern-day spiritual materialism – all situations when silence becomes a (passive-aggressive) means to an end, mostly for blocking out others and boosting our own productivity, well-being, or peace of mind[3].

What if, I want to suggest, silence is neither an inferior form of being human in this world, nor just another a means to the endless ends of our daily (or beyond daily) endeavours? What if silence – at least in some of its manifestations – is a unique way for us to be more human and more humane, reflecting the some of the most complex capabilities of our heads and hearts?

Of course: There are situations when speaking up is a very recommendable strategy. When our friend is about to be gobbled up by a dinosaur, fall off the edge of the world, or step in dog poop, we better cry: “Dinosaur!”, “Stop!”, or “Attention!”. And, in the bigger scheme of things, when we notice millions of people being loaded onto trains and transported to places from which nobody ever returns, when we realise that an o-ring seal is unsuitable for the temperatures it is likely to meet in upcoming operations, or when we see trees dying, glaciers melting, and peatlands drying up, we better shout and scream until someone listens to us and something is changed for the better. In such cases, not being silent means uttering warnings[4] and thereby saving others’ (and our own) skins; being silent in those same situations would be morally disgusting, ethically unacceptable, and humanely thoughtless and cruel.

Oddly, however, it seems that the fact that there are situations in which non-silence is morally, ethically, and humanely superior to silence has infected our attitude towards silence in much broader ways, as if some (silent) collective unconscious had concluded that the insight: “There are situations in which silence is (a contribution to not preventing) a crime” logically equaled the insight: “All silence is crime”[5] – which is obviously wrong.


Edvard Munch, Skriget (1895). From here [retrieved May 2nd, 2016].

Still, nowadays, many of our interactions (especially, but not only on social media) seem to follow the implicit assumption that those to blame are those who are silent. From those who do not answer emails (despite gentle and not-so-gentle reminders) to those who do not like or reply to our posts (or replies to posts) on virtual walls, from those who explicitly post information about the fact that they’ll not be posting for a while (because they’re going on holiday or taking a time off social media) to those who feel obliged to comment that they’ll not comment on something: Being silent requires explanations, solicits questions, creates discomfort for everybody involved in the conversation that is not happening, and results in irritation, resentment, anger, and hatred directed towards those who are silent[6].

Again, of course, there might be situations when not answering an email is impolite (like, for example, in any professional setting where at least a process reply is “good practice”), when not liking or replying to a post is an insult (like, for example, when someone deliberately ignores their spouse’s birthday wish on their social wall), when not being present on social media is a deliberate critical statement (like, for example, when someone disgruntedly pulls out of social networks because they were not presented with a virtual birthday cake), or when not commenting is indeed a proclamation of something (like, for example, when a team member doesn’t react to a draft everyone is supposed to review). Even in these cases, however, impoliteness, insulting, criticism, and proclamations are most often not crimes, but rather cracks in the fabric of functioning interactions between human beings – like the dog that doesn’t bark, the lambs that don’t scream, or the doves that don’t cry[7].

And then – and this is where I was heading all the time since I started writing a few paragraphs back, apologies for detours and cul-de-sacs on the way – there’s that vast number of situations when silence is neither a crime nor impolite, insulting, critical, or proclamatory, but rather a manifestation of what makes us human as well as humane. How so?

  1. Not speaking up demonstrates our ability to be not interested. The moment I don’t click the link that offers me fresh strawberries, ancient whiskey, a new pair of high-heeled, red-soled shoes, an unforgettable read of a brand-new book, an amazing holiday experience on pristine beaches, a life-changing wine-tasting app, or another mind-blowing “You won’t believe what happened then”-episode – that very moment confirms my ability to not be defined by what is. I can shrug my shoulders, turn away, and be silent – and free to focus on something else, or, for that matter, on nothing at all.
  2. Not speaking up shows our ability to change our minds. The time I take to mull over whether (and if so, how) to react to something that comes my way is a time in which I step out of the automatic chain reaction of cause and effect in which a “Just Do It!” makes me do, a “Think Different!” makes me think (different?), an “Enjoy!” makes me enjoy, and an “I’m loving it!” makes me love. That very time strengthens my ability to not be enslaved by causalities. I can do (or not do), think (or not think), enjoy (or not enjoy), love (or not love) while being silent – which makes me free to make choices, or, for that matter, decide not to choose at all.
  3. Not speaking up reflects our ability to step out of emotions. The pains I go through when sorting through the emotions something triggers in me (as well as through the emotions I’m assuming someone else might be experiencing, have experienced, or will be experiencing) are the birth pains of separating from my emotions as something that no longer holds me captive but that I decide to have and to hold (or not to hold). Whose happiness is in a happy message? Whose sadness is in a sad reply? Whose anger is in an angry comment? Whose hatred is in a hateful speech? Those very pains make me step out of and over emotions as I look at them while staying silent – which in turn makes me free to decide whether to then just sit at the beach, wet my toes, or plunge myself head-over-heels into stormy waves.
  4. Not speaking up indicates our ability to not be determined. The interval in which I don’t  say anything leaves all options open for me to take sides – or not. Instead of saying “yes” or “no”, being “for” or “against”, choosing “black” or “white”, I dwell in the infinite grounds of “neither-nor”, “both-and”, and the rainbow colours of shades of grey[8]. What if I do? What if I don’t? And what if whether I do or I don’t doesn’t matter at all? That very interval leaves me suspended in the vastness of possibilities. I am, and I am not, and I am not even in between – as once masterfully illustrated by the ultimate personification of human complexity (although not necessarily of silence), Kermit the Frog:

May your silences be unbothered by monsters and untroubled by poles!

[1] For a faint memory of how these precious times sounded, listen here [broken link updated on April 10th, 2017]. BACK TO TEXT

[2] To the point that even the (not negligible) part of humanity generally inclined to be introvert, rather than extrovert, breathed a collective sigh of relief when Susan Cain published her book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” (2012). BACK TO TEXT

[3] And: Yes, of course, all these can be of enormous benefit to those who suffer from an overload of auditory (or other sensory) input. At the same time, they all deliberately stop interaction with all those inputs, and thereby are predominantly about not receiving (not so much about not sending), imposing artificial silence on our surroundings (not being silent ourselves) . BACK TO TEXT

[4] Warning is most likely one of the primeval evolutionary uses of making noises, the other obvious ones being showing needs (as crying infants do) or attracting mates (as courting birds do). I’m sure there’s research (and maybe even proof) for this somewhere, but I haven’t bothered to look it up.BACK TO TEXT

[5] Here, a bigger debate could be started about the connections between transparency and sharing and silence and how societies in which the former are praised contribute to condemning the latter (as in totalitarian regimes). Have another look at George Orwell’s “1984” or Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” for eery descriptions of how this can play out. BACK TO TEXT

[6] The utter despair of those who are suffering from somebody else’s silence has been uniquely captured by Peter Gabriel – from this, it’s easy to imagine how all kinds of painful emotions can spring from not being talked to [retrieved May 3rd, 2016]. BACK TO TEXT

[7] And, of course, this is how it sounded when they still cried [retrieved May 3rd, 2016]. BACK TO TEXT

[8] As in Jasper Fforde‘s delightful novel “Shades of Grey” (2009), not the homonymous blockbuster that appeared shortly thereafter. BACK TO TEXT

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