The Power in Embracing Silence
Raise your hand if at some point in your life, you’ve agonised about an unreturned call, text or email from a friend. Maybe a moment of binge gossiping and laughter on Gmail comes to an unexplained and abrupt halt. Or perhaps it’s an unfulfilled promise to “call you later.” Nothing quite cuts through the noise generated by text message, Skype, email, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat and the rest of the pings chiming on our smartphones quite like silence.
It’s one thing to try to interpret an unreturned call from a love interest, but another matter entirely when trying to read a lapse in communication between friends. And sadly, in most cases of the latter, we tend to blame ourselves, weirdly internalising the silence rather than taking the scenario at face value.
“Do you think she’s mad at me?” A friend recently asked me after carefully outlining all of the events that led to a seemingly fraught and fateful cold shoulder. Because let’s be honest, everyone keeps their phone in the palm of their hands these days right? The events she replayed for me seemed banal enough, but the emotions sounded familiar. I had been there.
The exposition: Friend A emails Friend B, just to say hey and catch up on last week’s episode of Scandal. A few days go by and no word. Perhaps Friend B is merely busy with her new job.
Rising action: Time goes by. Radio silence. Perhaps Friend B never got the email?? Friend A checks sent mail, and yes the message did indeed leave her inbox exactly a week ago.
Climax: With no word from Friend B, Friend A is feeling ignored. So she sends a second email to Friend B and begins to wonder if she’s offended her in any way. Anxiety attack ensues.
Falling action: Friend A begins to rehash ways in which she could have wronged Friend B. Examples of potentially egregious behaviour include cancelling a dinner last-minute and forgetting to donate to her Kickstarter.
Denouement: Friend A begins to ask advice from a select group of friends who might be able to shed some light on the matter. The answer from each is the same, “Your girl is probably just busy.” And sure enough, Friend B sends Friend A an email, sounding as normal as ever and apologising for taking so long to reply. She wasn’t angry, simply tied up.
For the longest I took the Google approach to business and personal communication: that is, replying to everything immediately, or as close to immediately as possible. That way, friends and colleagues knew that my silence actually meant something (i.e. I’m traveling, I’m thinking about it, I’m busy, I’m not into it, etc.) But when my responsibilities increased at home and work, in the form of a new baby and big promotion at work, it became harder to sustain instant replies to everyone. It was a bit easier in the office where I could block out regular chunks of time for email. But I had limited free time at home, and that had to be divvied up between my husband, baby and me, not to mention squeezing in all-important things like dinner (a girl’s got to eat) and my own personal side projects. Something had to give. And usually, that something was email. That didn’t mean I loved my friends any less. I just couldn’t answer all of those pings immediately. Can you relate?
And yet, so many of us immediately wonder if a lag in response time is a reaction to one’s failure as a friend. We place unrealistic expectations for reachability onto the people we love and then unfairly place the blame on ourselves when they fail to live up to them. Based on my very informal poll, women (or at least the one’s in my social network) seem to interpret unanswered emails this way much more often than men, who instead consider a number of other plausible reasons — for example, the person could be ill, trying to replace a stolen phone, or trapped under an immovable steel beam after a freak accident somewhere. Sure, that last scenario sounds far-fetched, but this one doesn’t: maybe the person has just made the decision to slow down. And in 2015, maybe, you should too.
Illustration by Janelle Burger
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