In the cult classic film “Pulp Fiction,” there is a scene where the protagonist, Vincent Vega, takes his boss’s wife, Mia Wallace, out to a 1950s-themed restaurant. They sit, order milkshakes and stare at each other, not saying a word, with the discomfort so palpable that the viewer is forced to cringe. Mia breaks the ice.
“Don’t you hate that?” she says without looking up.
There is another pause in conversation, with Mia gathering the nerve to speak again.
“Uncomfortable silences. Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about b——- in order to be comfortable?” she says.
You laugh when you watch it, wince at the bluntness and maybe even nod in agreement. You’ve likely been there too. A moment where you’re with another person and your mind goes blank, your throat clenches and you plead with yourself to come up with something — anything — to say. Across from you, another person is going through an equally arduous struggle, and in that moment of silence, you both realize what you’ve feared has become reality: There is nothing to say.
In 2010, a team of Dutch scientists studied the behaviors of 102 college students to test the effects of good conversational flow. They found that four seconds of silence during a conversation are enough to elicit primal fears, activate anxiety-provoking emotions and create feelings of rejection and incompatibility. The researchers suggested that sensitivity toward signs of exclusion arose early in our evolutionary history, a time when the act of being excluded from a group was quite literally a life-or-death matter.
It all raises the question, however, as to why silence is associated with rejection. We do not feel comfortable in the presence of others without the presence of sound, and we go to great lengths to maintain conversations about topics we often are neither interested nor invested in — dialogues simply for the sake of dialogues. We have even invented a term that describes this effort: “small talk.”
Small talk is a strange beast, because it is driven by predictability and monotony, two traits that humans have historically been averse to. The phenomenon of small talk was first studied in 1923 by Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski, who coined the term “phatic communication” to describe this form of dialogue. In linguistics, a phatic expression is one that conveys no information — its only function is to perform a social task.
Small talk is the observation on how nice the weather has become, the water-cooler conversation about how your co-worker’s son is doing in school, the automatic query of how the weekend was — statements that are expected, possess set answers and create cookie-cutter discussions that you’ve likely already have had twice today. And somehow, these empty chats are infinitely preferable to a nod, a smile and a few moments of silence.
You’ve likely experienced this fear of silence more at Yale than anywhere else. On campus, silence is perceived as tacit concession that not much is going on and there is nothing interesting to offer. We are adept at starting and prolonging conversations that we have little intention of absorbing or remembering. Worse, the standard closings of those conversations — “Let’s get a meal and catch up more!” — are by and large empty promises.
Paradoxically, however, our fear of silence enhances the value of silence. Comfort in quiet is reserved solely for individuals who are able to be themselves in the presence of others, presenting themselves as they are, stripped of speech and action. It is complete vulnerability, but it is also a mastery of a force our culture is so afraid of.
Silence with those I love is not merely comfortable — it is indulgent, and symbolic. It serves to stregnthen relationships, and it is also the affirmation of the strength of a relationship. The presence of silence is what makes my father a companion rather than a counselor, what makes my suitemates people to love rather than people to live with. It is early morning walks with my usually garrulous girlfriend, quiet not for long — but long enough to appreciate the coolness of the air. It is breakfast in my grandmother’s house, as she brings out a plate of treats and a hot cup of tea. She smiles as the steam curls upwards, relaxing her wrinkled face. Never a word exchanged, but volumes are spoken.
Perhaps, once again, it is time to turn to the philosophy espoused by the character Mia Wallace. Later in the same dinner with Vincent, and as she takes a sip of her milkshake, she finishes their conversation.
“That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. When you can just shut up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.”
Mrinal Kumar is a junior in Silliman College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .