FreshMeat #17: She Blinded Me With Silence

FreshMeat #17 from Steve Portigal

               (oo) Fresh
                \\/  Meat 

FreshMeat – the official snack of the Zeitgeist
Talk is cheap, and silence is golden.
“Accustomed to the veneer of noise, to the shibboleths of
promotion, public relations, and market research, society
is suspicious of those who value silence.”
John Lahr

First things first: a shibboleth is a word (or phrase, or
form of language) that is used by members of a group to
identify themselves as being part of that group. Fans of
The Simpsons might exclaim “D’oh,” or software engineers
may make middleware references with their sandwiches. The
choice of words indicates something beyond the meaning of
the words themselves. One may (briefly, please!) ponder
what group I am claiming membership in through my use of
shibboleth here.

At any rate, Lahr’s quote nicely encapsulates some
thoughts I have had about silence, spurred on by a pair
of experiences over the past few months. A while back I
was in my first public improv performance. We were all
amateurs, some with many years of experience, others with
a year or less (such as myself). In this performance we
started each scene with one idea (often from the
audience) and proceeded from there with some sort of
structure. What often happened was a scramble to move the
idea forward – everyone speaking at once, with too many
ideas thrown in the first few moments to ever really
solidify into a great scene. Have you ever seen 8-year
olds play soccer? The ball and both sets of kids are a
whirling cloud that moves up and down and across the
field like the Tasmanian Devil. That was us.

But then the next night I saw the Kids in the Hall – a
comedy troupe that has been performing together for a
very long time. After the scripted material had finished,
the audience was clamoring for more. In advance of the
encore, they all walked on stage and thanked us, then
improvised a few jokes before heading off stage to
prepare for the encore. All five of them managed to hold
the stage coherently. Not everyone spoke at equal length
in those few minutes, but at no point did any of them
speak on top of another. It came off as natural and easy,
but it was really quite incredible – grab four people and
try to do that some time.

Where they succeeded and we didn’t-succeed-as-well (for
there are no losers in improv) was in allowing for
silence. Each Kid in the Hall was silent for most, if not
all, of their unscripted segment. What a powerful
contribution they made by not speaking. Yet what a
strange statement to make – that a comedy performer
helped by not speaking – how can that be? We tend to
expect performance to be the explicit utterances, not the
space between them.

But, as the word shibboleth reminds us, there are layers
to communication, and there’s a lot that can happen
without verbalization – posture, gestures, breath sounds,
eye gaze, facial reactions, and more. The Kids in the
Hall were doing all those the entire time – and they were
paying attention to each other. When silent, they were
actively silent – sending and receiving information.

This behavior is crucial in ethnographic research. When
interviewing, ethnographers speak minimally (reviewing
videotapes suggest as little as 20% of the time). Yet,
the interviews are directed and controlled by the
interviewer. Nodding, eye contact, and body language all
support the respondent in providing detailed information.

More tactically, we learn to remain silent for a beat or
two after someone has answered a question. People work in
“chunks” and often there are several chunks required to
deliver a response. Simply remaining silent (and this
does take some practice) and allowing the respondent to
answer in their own time is remarkably effective.

Of course, there is often more than one researcher on
hand. If the first ethnographer remains silent, waiting
for the respondent to continue, the second ethnographer
must recognize that, and also listen silently, rather
than using the opening as their chance to interview. This
collaborative use of silence is something the Kids in the
Hall managed and my improv group did not.

We experience these same challenges in more familiar work
settings – brainstorming, meetings, etc. We work in a
society that judges us primarily by our own contributions
rather than the way we allow others to make theirs. If
the collaborative silence is not a shared value in a
group, there can be a real problem for those who default
to listening, not speaking. We’ve learned how to give
credit to those who utter the pearls, but we don’t know
how to acknowledge the value of those that choose their
moments wisely, that allow others to shine, and that
ultimately enable those pearls.

I don’t propose any solution and I won’t condescend to
suggest “gee, if we each would try a little harder to…”
Indeed, so as to not end on a preachy note, I should
point out a 2002 episode of The Simpsons (DABF05, “Jaws
Wired Shut”) in which Homer’s jaw gets wired shut. He is
physically unable to speak. He does become a better
listener, but most interesting are the positive qualities
the people in his life project upon him. Simpsons
Executive Producer Al Jean said: “When Homer gets his jaw
wired shut, it makes him into a really decent, wonderful
human being.” I don’t know if Al Jean is getting post-
modern on us, but Homer’s internal change, through his
silence, was fairly minor compared to the differences
that other people perceived. For even more on that theme,
check out “Being There” by Jerzy Kozinsky (with Peter
Sellers starring in the film version).

Soundbites from “Jaws Wired Shut” here.


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