It’s been an entire week since I said a single word. Seven days during which I deliberately didn’t speak once to friends, family, or colleagues.
I’ve conversed with them via email and WhatsApp for essential communication, but I was trying to keep all interaction to a minimum. According to my phone's notebook app, which I was using to record my communication, I’ve written just 189 words in a week. That’s compared to the 20,000 we utter aloud on average per day. It’s felt pretty silent to me.
It’s all part of a week-long silence challenge that I set myself. I’ve never given much thought to how much we speak, until recently when I was on the bus home. It was raining, I’d just smashed my phone, and I’d been told the job I loved no longer existed. I needed my bed, a to-do list, and a strong G&T. Instead, I was sat next to an aftershave-doused man who took up too much space and who talked and talked and talked on the phone for 35 minutes. By the time I got home, I felt murderous.
I’m not the only one feeling like they need a dose of peace and quiet – there’s a global quiet revolution underway. The TED talk The Power of Introverts is one of the most-watched of all time, with over 18 million views; silent retreats (yes, like in Fleabag) are all the rage, with celebrity fans including Gisele Bundchen and Emma Watson; and a recently released book, The Art of Silence, has joined the growing list of tomes on the subject.
The #introvertproblems hashtag has been used over 100,000 times on Instagram, proving popular on memes like, ‘Sorry I can’t talk to you today. I talked to two people yesterday.'
“Every day, we navigate an endless cycle of conversations, requests, orders, and pleasantries," says Amber Hatch, author of The Art of Silence. "Sifting through this 'aural overload' takes mental energy, and can leave us stressed. Silence is a strategy we can adopt to set things right."
I'm sold. For the next week, I pledge that not a single word shall leave my mouth. I’m going through a stressful period, and I want to see if I can introduce some much-needed calm to my life – all while proving that we don’t need incessant chat and small talk.
It's like that Red Hot Chili Peppers lyric, ‘Everyone has so much to say, they talk, talk, talk their lives away'. When we’re so hell-bent on saying our piece, we miss the world passing us by.
I don’t think it’s going to be too hard – I’m not a non-stop talker – and I’m going to use email and WhatsApp to avoid complete social hibernation, and make sure I don’t get fired at work.
"Well, this'll be bliss," says my boyfriend - perhaps sarcastically? Or perhaps with brutal honesty.
Monday is okay. I avoid office small talk about my weekend and focus on my work. My brain engages quickly, and my usual morning sluggishness is replaced with efficiency. It makes sense – on average, it takes a time-sapping 25 minutes to concentrate on our original task after an interruption.
It’s strange not talking to my boyfriend over dinner that evening, but it allows me to properly listen to him. Suddenly, I’m riddled with guilt. I realise that when we’re normally chatting, I’m not properly listening – I’m thinking about what I want to say when he’s done.
Now that I'm listening intently, it’s hard not to reply. I resist the temptation to WhatsApp him from across the table and just nod understandingly. "It's nice not having you nag me about the bins and all, but I miss you," he says, and I feel a lump form in my throat, taken aback. "This'll be a long week."
I feel guilty about my bad listening skills, but I'm not alone, says Susan Cain, speaker of that Ted talk. “Many of us find it challenging to interact with family in the evenings, because of the noise and stimulation we’re subjected to during the day," she says. "We don’t realise it, but we long for quiet after work, and we can’t digest conversation adequately.”
I have a couple of slip-ups: A "No, thanks" in the office to a colleague I forgot to warn about my challenge (I couldn't bring myself to just shake my head when she offered me a cup of tea), picking up the phone to my dad and blurting out, "I'm doing my silence challenge - WhatsApp me", and a "Yes, please" when a checkout assistant asked if I wanted a bag (again, I just felt rude nodding).
The hardest part was seeing a close friend on Saturday who had just split from her boyfriend. I felt apprehensive – and sad - about not being able to comfort her with words. But my listening without speaking seemed to help her more than the standard break-up niceties. When we hugged goodbye, she said: “That was a strange one-way conversation, but it was weirdly therapeutic.”
This doesn’t surprise Amber Hatch. “When someone listens to us, they’re not only acknowledging our opinion or experience, but us as a person," she says. "We may not realise it, but it makes us feel accepted, confident and valued.”
Over the next few days, I struggle with another issue: ‘mind noise’ as my brain whirrs with what it wants to communicate. “Being silent doesn’t mean your brain is quiet,” says Jenny, 40, who attended a silent retreat three years ago in Spain. “My mind wandered from imagining conversations with friends, to singing songs, to intense thinking about my life. It can be incredibly frustrating.”
I realise that the way I speak to myself internally is very negative – berating myself for the way I look, or for not completing my work fast enough – and that I tend to block out this cruel 'inner talk' with chatter. If I'm nattering to a colleague about my weekend, I'm not listening to my inner critic. I vow to not be so hard on myself, to remind myself that I'm doing the best I can, and that's enough.
I notice more about other people's behaviour, too. I registered my friend's defensive body language when another friend asked her about work - folding her arms and breaking eye contact - and I'm not sure I would have really seen that before. It turned out she'd had an argument with her boss and was embarrassed. I notice how people use higher intonation to ask for things or discuss something uncomfortable. I guess they're tactics we all use, but I feel relieved to have a break from it.
Nonetheless, as Amber Hatch says: “Our friends would miss us if we couldn’t communicate at all, and it would probably make us feel lonely, too.”
Her words hit on a feeling I’ve had all week. Even though I’ve found benefits to my silence, not speaking has made me feel incredibly alone, and I can’t wait to start speaking again.
When I do, it feels weird. I find the sound of my own slightly raspy voice shocking, and I have to keep adjusting my 'volume' as I'm speaking way too quietly. Sometimes, I find myself just listening to others without speaking, like I did before - but now it suddenly feels awkward and I worry I’m making the other person uncomfortable. I miss it. And all that small talk just seems so pointless. But speaking has made the 'brain noise' go away, and that’s almost relaxing.
My week has made me realise how important words are, for carving our identity and nurturing relationships. But it’s also taught me how easy it is not to listen to each other properly. I decide that, from now on, I’ll speak less, and more meaningfully. I won't jump at the chance to say my piece any more. I'll happily take a conversational backseat if it means I can properly listen to the people I love. Our noisy world could always do with a bit more quiet – especially on buses.
This article was originally published on 8 January 2018