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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Sound of Silence

<m hereby neglecting the premise I’ve developed all term. Rather than writing a finale about the intersection between small talk and identity, today I am turning to one of language’s foils: silence. In contrast with language’s impact on our personas, its absence reveals important facets of ourselves. While this concept alone could fill nine weeks of columns, it is worth highlighting briefly to complement my discussion of language.   

Silence is often associated with discomfort. The potential for an “awkward silence” to infiltrate a casual encounter, a large group setting, or a difficult conversation is a dreaded and nefarious threat. As brainy, quirky Carls, we are well acquainted with this concept. Yet enduring a quiet moment together does not always indicate social incompetence.

For example, during a prolonged silence in class, one of three scenarios is probably occurring. First – and I imagine this is a uniquely Carletonesque phenomenon – a room of blank stares might mean that the question was too easy. (We’d rather spend our class participation time wresting with the real questions, thank you very much.) Second, it could be that frankly we don’t know the answer. In the avalanche of ninth week, we can’t help but triage our endless readings and obligations. The third possibility is that we are – gasp – thinking. How wonderful to be in a room of twenty five people thinking in tandem, rather than spewing an flurry of impetuous comments.

In contrast with this kind of uncomfortable collective silence, we also tend to be silent around the people we know best. It’s easiest to say nothing to the people we say the most to; amazingly, this hallmark of unease also signals tremendous comfort.
As I’m realizing more and more, silence is wildly ambiguous. It can be severely precarious given its power to heal or to hurt. I can think of just as many times when a silent response meant that I had done something wrong, as for when I had done something right; when my own silence meant that I had something to say, or had nothing to say; when I wanted urgently to respond, or when I fervently did not. How do we understand these delicate moments when there is nothing tangible to interpret?

Pierre Hecker will tell you that for Shakespeare, silence often accompanies profound emotion – in these cases, language is abandoned due to its inadequacy to express what we feel. Post-Renaissance England, our technology saturated minds demand instant feedback. When dealing with silence, the lack of an immediate response can seem unsettling and unsatisfying. While I’ve suggested all term that the small things we say daily have inadvertent power, sometimes we can say even more in saying absolutely nothing. 

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