(Not) filling silences

“Saying that knowing what’s going on is better than not knowing what’s going on is a value judgment. It’s completely arbitrary.”

—A Sunday morning customer at the Emporium, explaining himself. It began when I asked him how he was. “I don’t know,” he replied. “Ah,” I said, “Too early? Pre-caffeine?” “Not really. I never know.” I laughed an “I see” and went back to work. A few minutes later he came back with the above.

I like that it took him a while to formulate a response. Usually if it takes me a while to formulate a response, I just let it go, because the conversation long since changed, or a good chunk of time has passed, and I am considered oddly if I try to bring it back (especially if it’s just for a witty quip). I think I tend toward that (bringing something back up) but stifle it.

Once recently it was appreciated. I was talking to Josh about one thing and we got off on several random, crazy diversions and from one beat to the next I brought us back a few subjects to the one I hadn’t finished with yet. He laughed and asked, “What am I going to do when you’re gone?”

I don’t know if it’s because I’ve spent too much time in New York or, less extremely, because I’m a Rhode Islander, that’s led me to adopt the usual habit of muting that impulse, of letting the conversation “progress,” and not go “backwards” (hello, spiral theory anyone?), or of waiting till the subject on which I have an additional comment comes back “naturally.” By which time I’ve probably forgotten said additional comment, because I haven’t been repeating it to myself in my head for fear of not being as engaged as my already-erratic-enough brain lets me be, because I haven’t written it down for fear of being rude for pausing the conversation, or else the comment just seems irrelevant at this point.

Theory (and perhaps in particular Winko) has interestingly (though not oddly) helped this. Things that force you to simply stop and think in the context of a conversation really obviate the value placed on immediate response. (“It’s a value judgment.”) To let a new thought, an idea, hang in silence for more than a millisecond or two is a skill I have only just begun to acquire. My tendency is to jump in, to fill the silence (for fear of being silenced), or to move on (for fear of awkward silences, or silences I make awkward by my awkwardness, or my tendency to view and experience silences as necessarily awkward). I will take stuff home to think about, but rarely do I allow myself the novelty, the leisure, the privilege to marinate mentally in something in the midst of a conversation. Perhaps there is an art to making mental marination conversive. Or of taking the reigns of a conversation and bringing it back, or over, to a previously dismissed topic.


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