1. In the beginning was the word. So what is there to say about silence? Plenty, judging by Amazon, where 8,772 book titles feature the term. Most are religious musings or murder mysteries, reflecting our mixed feelings about these hazy seven letters.
2. Silence is nothing if not ambivalent. Since it requires discipline, it has long been associated with power, both good and evil. To Romans, the goddess Isis vanquished ‘the lamentable silences of hell’. Yet for Buddhists, freedom from the word brings higher consciousness. Today, however, negative sentiments are rising, and while city dwellers should appreciate quiet, they seem the most intimidated.
3. Our noisy culture is unbalanced by the view that good communication is all talk. In America, pre-school children diagnosed with ‘selective mutism’ (also known as shyness) are treated with Prozac. And at a gap in conversation, few of us pause to contemplate silence’s virtues: we’re too busy panicking how to fill it. A quiet person is threatening, because he acts as a verbal laxative on us. Maybe this is why corporations are stuffed with strong, silent types, whose success seems disproportionate to the few ideas anyone recalls them having. Then again, they can’t be blamed for bad ideas.
4. Silence should be cherished for more than the peace it signals when at ease with a loved companion. In fact, it is a communication tool as versatile as the queen in chess. Seventeenth-century conversation gourmet La Rochefoucauld distinguished between the “eloquent”, “mocking” and “respectful” silence. But its meaning is never fixed: it can express empathy or confusion, encourage intimacy or distance, depending on how it is interpreted.
5. Used wisely, silence compels others to speak (handy in negotiation). It also helps them to listen, and lends weight to what we say. Stand-up comics pace jokes carefully: ‘Don’t,’ they advise, ‘step on your punchline’. In that extra, suspenseful beat the audience’s imagination becomes their collaborator. This is why masters of silence may be taken for master talkers. Such as the wily French politician, Talleyrand, who used to sit up late, polishing fine phrases. At parties he was a clam, before suddenly spitting out a sentence that people claimed ‘was the sort they never forgot’. So have a pause for thought.