Why is silence so awkward?

It’s weird for me to think about how universally silence is perceived as awkward (at least in American society; I’m not sure how much this applies to other cultures.) For some reason, almost everyone I see, including me, seems to have this urge to limit silence as much as possible. I don’t remember being taught this feeling, but for some reason, it’s something I feel deeply, and I have little insight as to why this is the case.

This feeling arises regardless of whether I’m talking with one person or a large group. Interestingly I think the feeling gets somewhat stronger with larger groups, but there are more people around to break the silence, which makes things easier.

Sometimes I cringe a bit inside when it becomes painfully obvious that people are talking just to break the silence – including when I catch myself doing it. Some people give in faster than others and say arbitrary things that may not make any sense; others will strategize a bit and try to refer back to a previous topic, or maybe ask a random question about someone in the group (“Did you just get a haircut?”); some even laugh things off and directly address the awkward silence itself (this one I dislike the most); probably everyone at times resorts to external stimuli or excuses (“Need to reply to this text”, “Whoops, I’m late for something”, etc.)

Sometimes, if I can bear it, I’ll try to extend the silence just to see what happens. Who will break first? What will they say? I have a feeling that how people behave in such situations can give you some sliver of insight into their personality. In fact, I remember hearing about some people exploiting this tendency in others to avoid silence; for example, negotiators seeking to get the other party to cave, or powerful people looking to get others to compromise on something (I can’t remember any concrete examples, unfortunately.)

An Experiment

“Experiment” is a bit of a misnomer, but I have had for some time the idea of getting a group of people – probably around 5 or 6 is ideal, although many sizes could work, really – and forcing ourselves to sit in silence for a decent, but not excessive, period of time - maybe 20 minutes or so. No communication – no hand signals, no funny faces, no staring contests, no winks, no nothing. No external influences – no phones, no food to play with, no books to read, no windows to look out of – nothing. No meditation either – this should be a time of nothingness, where nobody is doing anything. There’s no agenda or topic to think about. I want people to embrace the silence and just be together without any obligation of interaction, and further, an absence of interaction, without any distractions to divert our attention. Just be. Can we generate something resembling an awkward silence and embrace it? Can we feel the seconds stretch into minutes, and the minutes blend together?

I have the feeling that forced silence won’t feel as awkward, because it removes that element of unexpectedness – of clumsiness – that accompanies a normal lull in conversation. It will undoubtedly feel a bit odd though, don’t you think?

Will I ever get to conduct this experiment? Probably not, honestly. First, why would people want to do this? It’s something I’m curious about, but I doubt many others would be. I can’t offer a question I’m trying to answer, or a problem I’m trying to solve, through this little experiment. I think most people would find it a waste of time.

Second, I think it’s something that many people, perhaps myself included, would feel uncomfortable doing, just because of the lack of stimulation. I think I’ve shot my attention span to some degree through nearly constant stimulation: music, social media, games, etc. I would also wager that plenty of people would fare even worse. While I may be fine, since I can pretty easily get lost in my own head, I feel like many people would get feel pretty uncomfortable sitting by themselves with no external stimulation. Compounding that with the presence of others and the inability to interact with them may be a bit too unnatural for some, even if only for 20 minutes.

If you can find a group of people willing to do this, and you can have them meet me in person some day, let me know.