Is Silence Our Ally Or Enemy?

Are you not on speaking terms with anyone? And? How long has this Cold War been going on for? Any hope that it’ll end soon? While you’re still in the midst of it, who’s suffering from it?

Chances are we’ve all done it before. I guess we’re all guilty of it too. Like it or not, sometimes we can get a bit passive aggressive in our behaviour – whether it’s in a verbal or non-verbal form.

Our interactions with other fellow human beings are as complicated as ever. Parents, partners, friends, relatives, bosses, co-workers, customers or strangers etc, we don’t always agree with them, neither do they with us. Conflict does occur from time to time. Even to our best effort and ability, some people simply don’t (want to) change. Well, to be fair, they may think the same about us, too. So, what do we do? Silence?

Before I go on. Shhh… Please stay quiet! Silence in progress!

Silence is like a secret weapon. Perhaps it’s our last resort! It’s subtle yet overt. We use it to teach people a lesson. But has anyone learned from it? Is it serving anyone?

With no words exchanged, what does it leave with us? It may seem peaceful on the outside but on the inside, it may not be as simple as the outside appears to be, the storm is wreaking havoc on us. Are we really getting things resolved by an act of pure silence?

In fact, silence is another form of communication. At its core, it’s manipulative. To state the obvious, deep down, we want to control the outcome, except this time round we do it from a different standpoint – we watch from the sidelines. We care but act like we don’t care. We don’t talk but we do lots of mind reading.

Is it true that silence is golden? Some practice silence like a virtue we should worship and follow. For me, silence has always got some negative connotation to it.

Here’s a bizarre case of silence I’d like to share with you. It dates back to 2003 when I was joining in a new team. I remember that morning my manager took me aside and said: Ted, don’t take it personally if Charlie doesn’t want to talk to you. Looking slightly confused, my instant reaction was: Are you serious? Really? Why is he like that?

So yes, in the office open space, Charlie sat merely a metre away from me. He’d refused to talk to me about anything since day one: no morning or afternoon greetings, no work stuff discussions, not acknowledging my existence, just nothing. Zero, none.

The situation continued like this for the next 2 years. It was awkward, uncomfortable to be there. The silence slowly worked its way to erode my confidence and affect me to the point that I felt like:

  • I was just an outsider
  • I was just a number
  • I was just part of the furniture
  • I didn’t fit in or belong

Then what? One day out of blue, like magic, over a team member’s farewell dinner, he pulled his chair closer to mine and started talking to me as if he’d known me for years – I’d been so used to his silence treatment that a token of his new gesture like this really took me by surprise. I literally had to look left and right and make sure he was talking to no one else but me. I was left feeling speechless and joyful, but at the same puzzled… I wondered why he suddenly decided to break his silence and connect with me. Perhaps I’d passed his character test?

The next day I went to tell my manager about it. He was very happy for me but sounded a bit sarcastic in his reply. He said: Well done Ted. Congratulations! It took me a bit longer. 3 years!

The moral of the story? Silence doesn’t build bridges, it burns bridges.

Don’t get me wrong about silence. A temporary silence such as doing meditation or just having a quiet moment alone can give us a leverage to gain clarity and calmness inside. But the long-standing silence that’s deliberately plotted and done in such a way over an extended period, with a hidden agenda, may prove to be more disastrous and counter-productive than helpful.

As you can see, when it comes to silence, there’s so much to explore – its depth, its causes and effects. I can’t be silent on the topic of silence. Very ironic!

Overall, silence does play a part in our lives. It’s not going away, nor can we escape from it. To capitalise on its impacts, it really depends on our intentions. With bad intentions, silence is like the clam before the storm, its detrimental side effects may not be apparent at first but can later make things go from bad to worse, worse to the worst. With good intentions, silence can buy us time and space, pave a way to better understanding ourselves and others, create a win-win situation for both sides.

If silence is your department, what does your silence “say” about you?

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