The Burden of Communication and the Potency of Silence

Photo by Giampaolo Macorig

There is a time to be silent. I value it more as I grow older. The quiet after I close the children’s bedroom doors after kissing them goodnight, or when I sink into the bath. I don’t need to fill the space with noise, like I did before. It reminds me of my maternal grandfather, how he would roar for quiet when the shrieks of children crescendoed, like the din threatened his sanity.

It’s the same when I read. I value white space on the page as much as the words. I need it to breathe, to process, to interact with the text. It’s why sometimes the most romantic thing in the world is team work between my husband and me, when we both wordlessly know our roles, when I can relay my thoughts to him almost in shorthand because he knows the colours of my soul. Our common history means he is primed to speak me.

Oh the irony of a writer bemoaning words. I tweet and Facebook and blog and write a newsletter. I’m not known for brevity. My words meander. I deviate and get lost in my own thoughts. I write for me as much as for my work. I write to find out what I think. Without words there is no community. We voice ourselves to be understood, to feel less lonely, to contribute.

Photo by Rupa Panda

But the world is full of words and talk. I wonder how often are we truly listen to those we don’t agree with in the first place? We shout our own mortality from the rooftops because without constant acknowledgement we fear will fade into nothing. And really, it’s not new, is it, this need to be seen? Even before the technological revolution we have seen in our lifetimes, families would shout over each other at the dinner table. We all want to be heard. I think we might have forgotten the strength of silence, of being comfortable in your own skin without having our identities reflected back at us.

My working life has been about communication. In the corporate world, communication contributes to aligning goals, increasing efficiency, selling a vision, finding solutions between warring parties. But too much communication can be a distraction, a barrier to decision-making, a ravenous consumer of energy that yields little result. Our words become impotent. Limited information flow used to be a very real problem in our personal and professional spheres, but as technology makes the world seem smaller, and the market is flooded with cheap tools to display content, we are in danger of information saturation.

We broadcast our personas through ever-evolving mediums. They arrive in a dozens of formats – email, voicemail, text, Whats App, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Skype – too many to be pleasurable. Communication is expelled so quickly that it has given rise to the expectation of almost instant responses. The messages become a nuisance, guilt-inducing. Everything gets lost, like a coat with too many pockets, or a ball game with a surplus of balls in play. How many more nights will we scroll through the lives of others until our eyes blur? We skim, perpetually distracted by the next shiny thing.

Photo by Patrick Marioné

I’m careful not to be the friend who cannot tear her eyes away from her phone. But I fear that I am sometimes that parent, watching my children through a lens or engrossed in a story that will soon be yesterday’s news, at the expense of being present. The truth is, after the initial panic, it is a relief to be away from my phone. When it does ring I am momentarily irritated by the interruption to my schedule. In a dystopian future, maybe we’ll pay phone companies to black out our devices for a portion of the day, like addicts paying their dealers for the chance to go cold turkey.

When I was a teenager, before I had a mobile phone, I used to borrow my mum’s phone for her free minutes. I’d sit at the bottom of the garden in the dark in my pjs, talking for hours to my best friend. Life was simpler somehow. I miss that. But the truth is, we are not powerless to change the amount of noise we let into our lives. Communication is often reciprocal. We fear we are missing out and reach out to individuals who do not enrich us.

The next time your comms dial is turned up too high, don’t be afraid to optimise your time so it serves you best. Good email management goes a long way. Clear up your Facebook stream and newsletter subscriptions, use your Twitter lists. Choose the channels that suit you and prune your comms if there is no value in it for you. Don’t feel you have to be immediately available to everyone all the time. It does us good every once in a while to embrace the silence.

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