Interpreting Silence

It is 8:00 AM and you open up your laptop to check your email. There is still no response from your friend who you wrote two days ago. That’s strange, you think.  This friend always replies back right away. This is when you start to think that maybe something is wrong. Is everything ok? Has there been an accident? Or maybe it was something I said when we were on the phone together last week. Or maybe it was the email itself? You go back and read the email again. Perhaps it was the second paragraph. I thought when I wrote it that it might be too aggressive. Yeah, that’s it. That’s why I haven’t received a response.

Three days go by and the story that you have begun to tell yourself about how unhappy your friend and colleague is with you has reached new heights. You decided that your friend is angry and that this situation may be unreconcilable. You decide to pick up the phone and call but it goes straight to voicemail, of course. So do your next two calls.

You’ll obsess over the weekend about what you should do next. You just can’t imagine what caused this strong reaction.

It is now Monday morning. You open up your email at 8 o’clock to start your day. There in your inbox is the message from your friend which reads, “I am home from vacation! I had a great week unplugged and off the grid! Can’t wait to talk to you soon and catch up.”

Does this scenario sound familiar to you? How often do we interpret the silence of others? So frequently we attribute meaning, and even a fully fleshed story, to a complete absence of information.

Perhaps this scenario seems a little paranoid to you. Let’s change the concept just slightly. In the email, we said something as a joke but upon rereading it we see it was something that could be read as offensive by your friend. Now the silence begins. No answers and phone calls go to voicemail. Seem any more plausible?

When we interpret silence by giving a story where there is no story we open up our imagination to something that becomes quite dangerous.

Recently, when talking to a friend, I heard about someone he dated who, if he didn’t respond to a text for five minutes, began to text again and again within seconds; each successive one rapidly filling up the text message inbox. He felt like he couldn’t be away from his phone even for a few minutes. Sure, this might stem from additional issues and insecurities but at a base level it is the silence that is being given the meaning.

What if we agreed that silence has no meaning. If the person’s body language seems fine and there is no issue that you know of, then the silence means nothing. Not when we are eating dinner. Not when we are driving in the car. Silence is just silence.

Body language is communication. Words are communication. Stern looks are communication. Silence on the other hand, is literally… nothing.

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