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Philosophy Now’s own columnist Peg Tittle asks why we are all so afraid of silence.
What is this fear of silence? On the radio, over the telephone, in person. It’s a curious thing. Dead air for me is not dead at all. It’s very alive, bustling with the work of understanding what was just said and then of judging it – right? Wrong? Important? Trivial? Incomplete? How can I add to it? Change it? Correct it? Improve upon it? Explore it? Use it?
Not only is dead air good, the lack of it is bad. Nonstop patter allows no time to think; in fact, it discourages thought. When speed of response is rewarded (when teacher calls on the first hand raised), often superficiality of response is received.
If we were free to say “that’s a good question…” But the other, going for the instant response, usually asks the questions that aren’t good. Or, if they are, we don’t recognize it, focused ourselves on the quick response.
Or “I’ll have to think about that” – but thinking about it is for philosophers, contemplatives, monks. Ordinary people who think are odd enough for comment, “a penny for your thoughts.”
Or “I don’t know” – but we, especially men, can’t say we don’t know: Better a poor response than no response at all. More often than not, better a lie.
So we don’t say these things. We chatter instead. We fill the air with small talk.
Part of the problem is that noise suggests activity. I suppose this is true. But such activity is not necessarily good, let alone productive. It merely creates that illusion. For those who don’t think about it. Further, noise suggests physical activity. Only those unaccustomed to mental activity would mistake silence for inactivity.
And part of the problem is that lengthy silences are considered rude. On the contrary, the absence of such silence is what’s rude: it shows that what’s being said is not being taken very seriously. It shows that the other is too selfish or too apathetic to care about what’s being said. Or even to care about or be interested in the person who said it. (Why would they say that? What do they want? Can I give them what they need? )
Perhaps those who call it dead air are themselves dead, unable, or worse, unwilling to think. Dead air can be alive with thinking.
© Peg Tittle 1998
Peg Tittle lives with a dog in a cabin on a lake in a forest. They both consider Curious George a role model.