“I think you talk just to hear your own voice.”
I was four. I don’t remember her name, but I remember her words. At the time, she was probably right. I started talking at around six months, and I never stopped.
Until last Thursday.
Inspired by No Talking, Andrew Clements’ juvenile fiction exploration of the boundaries between talking and communicating, I performed an experiment I’ve wanted to try since middle school. On Thursday, I stopped talking.
Which was scarier than you might think. I’m a verbal processor. I talk a lot. Me not talking is equivalent to me with a new haircut or a neon sweatshirt: noticeable. What will people think? How will they react? I tried to ignore my fears, because the point wasn’t to attract attention, but to listen more. To hear other people rather than using their words as springboards to launch my own ideas…
Someone outside my room sneezes, and I instinctively mutter, “Bless you.” A second later, I freeze, eyeliner halfway to my eye, horrified. Ten minutes, and I’m already talking! I can’t do this! I calm myself down and apply eyeliner while considering my first discovery: talking is a knee-jerk reaction.
I tell myself I must be more attentive for this experiment to succeed.
Fifteen minutes later, halfway to class, someone greets me and, “Hey,” slips out before I realise it. Another instinctive reaction. I always thought talking was a choice, but these slips happen almost without my noticing. The idea that talking is a subconscious habit both frightens and annoys me, and I determine to do better.
In my required study group, facial expressions and gestures carry me through. Nobody seemed to notice. Maybe they think I’m tired, I decide, sipping coffee to give my mouth something to do.
At lunch, my friend initially seems unaware of my silence. Then she asks if I’m okay. I smile and nod. She makes me open my mouth, worried my tongue has been cut off, rendering me physically incapable of speech. I communicate in small, inarticulate noises, gestures, and facial expressions, and she asks if I’ve become some sort of animal. By the time we have our food, she announces her conclusion: I’m the copycat alien from the Dr Who episode “Midnight.” I consider breaking my silence to protest but make do with an exaggerated pout.
After that, she accepts my silence. I hope my silence will allow her to speak more. Instead, she also stops talking. For nearly an hour, we hold an animated, wordless conversation, all squeaks, groans, expressions, and gestures. We don’t communicate more than usual, but we certainly have more fun.
At work, I can’t make faces and wave my hands at library patrons, so I give myself an allowance of phrases: “Would you like a receipt?” and “Can I help you?” and “Have a nice day!” Talking feels uncomfortable. My voice comes out lower than usual, in pitch and volume, but still sounds too loud to me. My tongue, grown comfortable in its place, fights the words, and my lips feel stiff. Three hours in, and instead of struggling to keep silent, I struggle to speak.
It’s hard to think clearly without talking. My thoughts loop-the-loop, nosedive, skim by just out of reach. I give up on listening to the professor’s lecture, since I can’t process her words without making snarky comments under my breath. Instead, I spend the class period on my laptop working out the backstory for a character and hoping I don’t miss anything vital–without words, I can’t ask for clarification if I do.
At dinner, my friend takes to explaining to anyone who questions my silence, “She’s just not talking today.” For which I’m grateful until someone mentions, “I had a three-year-old do that to me once,” and her explanation turns into, “She’s just being a three-year-old today.”
Voiceless, I can’t protest the way her advocacy becomes an insult. My experiment loses some of its charm. Instead of reflecting on the intricacies of communication, I wonder, “Is this how oppression feels?”
It’s hard to tutor without speaking, so I give up my silence for work. After three hours, I forget about my experiment entirely.
I walk back into my suite, reply to something someone says, and hear, “Yay! She’s talking again!” This reminds me of my experiment, and I regret talking. Too late now, I decide, so I ignore that comment and continue talking as usual.
My biggest surprise was the realisation of how intrinsically my voice affects the people around me. The world didn’t continue as usual around my silence; my silence changed the world around me.
Communication is give and take. It’s pretty hard if you’re only giving, and it’s pretty hard if you’re only taking. People expect you to talk as well as listen. If you don’t, they worry. If you stop talking, people don’t talk more to fill the space–they stop, too, and communication suffers. And communication is vital for relationships. Turns out people–even good friends–can’t read minds. If you take away someone’s voice, you take away relationship. And if you take away your own voice, for whatever reason, you do the same.
It turns out silence can be pretty loud.