The sound of silence

Why are you sitting here in total silence?” is one of the dumbest questions one can hear these days. I have heard it several times and each time my reaction is WTF? What kind of question is that? Am I supposed to scream, make noise or listen to some random music/TV show at all times? Did silence become something undesirable, something scary, something to be escaped? To me, silence is a precious state: a state which allows you to rest, to be with your own thoughts, to stand face to face with yourself. And this is very healthy. Not just healthy, but vitally important for normal psyche. Even psychiatrists agree that it is necessary to be able to have such distraction-free moments of reflection and introversion. They consider constant need for a distraction as means of escaping something unpleasant, something repressed and troublesome in our mind. That is why I am a bit cautious of people who come in to the kitchen in the office, notice the lack of music or TV, and instantly react by asking “Why so silent in here?” and then swiftly grab a TV remote or turn on the internal office radio. I am cautious because I believe you have to be a bit psychotic to react to simple silence in such a way. I start thinking “What are you running from?.. What’s so frightening in your head that you require constant distraction?”.

Unfortunately, this is seems like a disease of certain generation. Offices (including my own) that try to be hip and cool to attract young employees do provide auditory (and to lesser extent visual) distractions everywhere. Open space office itself already denies any opportunity of silence because of constant chatter, phone conversations and overexcited screams from gaming room… And yet all the other spaces including toilets, kitchens, elevators are filled with constant noise from internal radio and sometimes TVs. You can’t find a silent moment even while taking a shit! The only opportunity of silence in the office is to turn off the TV and radio in the kitchen (given the kitchen is empty at the moment). And even then, it won’t be long until someone will come in and ask that stupid question and turn them back on.

Same problem can be seen in other places, such as gym. They no longer play music only in the actual gym area, but also in dressing rooms, showers, and even turn on some speakers on the outside of the building, so that people are “protected” from “horribly unpleasant” silence while they’re walking to their cars. In fact, silence is so uncomfortable for many people that gym managers use it to force visitors to leave when working hours are near the end: they turn off the music 15-30 minutes before the end of official working hours and people in dressing room start rushing like hell, even though there’s still plenty of time left to dress calmly.

It seems like entire generation considers silence to be sad and depressive, filled with negative emotions which can only be diffused by music, TV or erratic laughter. But it’s not the silence that is filled with sadness, depression and scary dark things. Silence is merely a medium for your own thoughts and feelings to flow freely. Whatever is flowing through that medium, whatever emotions silence causes you, all of that is originating from you. And the only healthy way to deal with it is to accept it, to just let it happen, not to chase it away with noise. For a healthy person silence is not unpleasant because there’s nothing scary to run from or to chase away.


I’ve just found perfect illustrations of this modern phenomenon in writings of several authors:

“Many primitive peoples, when they don’t have work to do, are quite content to sit for hours at a time doing nothing at all, because they are at peace with themselves and their world. But most modern people must be constantly occupied or entertained, otherwise they get “bored,” i.e., they get fidgety, uneasy, irritable.”
— Theodore Kaczynski, “Industrial Society and Its Future”

“To the restless temperament of the west, sitting may seem to be an unpleasant discipline, because we do not seem to be able to sit just to sit, without qualms of conscience, without feeling that we ought to be doing something more important to justify our existence.”
— Alan Watts, “The Way of Zen”


Recently my colleagues were discussing some kind of new mega-expensive earplugs for sleep that are supposed to give you a complete silence. One colleague said “Oh, I wouldn’t want total silence, a person can go crazy if there’s no auditory stimulation…” That’s of course a very dumb thing to say because of one simple reason… that reason is huge numbers of deaf people in the world who didn’t go completely mad just because they don’t get auditory input. More importantly, such attitude tells us one thing: that colleague most likely already is bat-shit crazy and constant noise is required to keep him from completely losing it. Especially if you remember psychiatrist’s advise discussed in first paragraph…