The Sounds of Silence

In the grand theatre of global customs, the way we value silence is unique to each culture and purpose.

As for a universal definition of silence, it would be easier to catch a cloud with a butterfly net – elusive and always just out of reach.

  • In the 6th century, Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu claimed, “Silence is a source of great strength.”
  • A West African proverb states, “Silence is also speech.”  
  • In Aboriginal cultures, extended periods of silence during conversations are considered normal and valued. During silent pauses, they listen show respect and consensus. The silence is never misinterpreted as a lack of understanding or agreement.
  • In China, the Confucian values of remaining quiet allow individuals to think before speaking and possibly embarrassing themselves or others. This is related to their concept of ‘saving face’.
  • In 1963, Simon and Garfunkel sang about ‘The Sounds of Silence’.

Some years ago, I witnessed an experiment where a dozen 13-year-old school children were asked to sit in a field at least 30 feet apart so they wouldn’t disturb one another. Their mission? To eavesdrop on the world around them for a full five minutes.

At the end of the exercise, they gathered to share their experiences.  Some talked about hearing cows moo, the buzzing of insects or even car horns in the distance; others, the rustling of the bushes in the breeze.

The real showstopper, the response that will remain in my memory for years to come, came from one young lady who proudly proclaimed, “I listened to my heart beating”.

Talk about a poet (or rockstar) in the making!

Humans have several ways of communicating with one another, whether we’re crafting words on a page, serenading with our voices, letting our faces do the talking, or orchestrating a ballet of body language, we’re constantly communicating.

We use all of these forms all the time. It would be impossible to live a day without speaking, writing or reading, making facial expressions, or using any body language to communicate with others.

While all these forms of communication are commonly known, another form, not as intuitively obvious, is silence.

Silence isn’t just a universal mute button; it’s a chameleon, a master of disguise! Different cultures have their own linguistic quirks and body language secrets. It’s a global game of “Shhh,” but with cultural twists, turns and different meanings behind each moment of tranquillity.

Native American cultures have been described as reluctant to speak or lacking in personal warmth simply because their culture views silence differently than most modern-day Americans.

Apaches, for example, use silence for situations of uncertainty and unpredictability, Americans prefer that silence does not happen at all but will accept it for situations of comfort or, in some cases when they want to avoid small talk with strangers.

The Lakota Narrative on Silence in the Lakota Narratives of Ella Cara Deloria (1889 – 1971), educator, anthropologist, ethnographer, linguist and novelist of Yankton Lakota heritage carries a lesson for us who were brought up on Western values:

“We Indians know about silence. We are not afraid of it. In fact, for us, silence is more powerful than words. Our elders were trained in the ways of silence, and they handed over this knowledge to us. Observe, listen, and then act, they would tell us. That was the manner of living.

With you, it is just the opposite. You learn by talking. You reward the children that talk the most at school. In your parties, you all try to talk at the same time. In your work, you are always having meetings in which everybody interrupts everybody, and all talk five, ten or a hundred times. And you call that ‘solving a problem’. When you are in a room, and there is silence, you get nervous. You must fill the space with sounds. So you talk compulsorily, even before you know what you are going to say.

White people love to discuss. They don’t even allow the other person to finish a sentence. They always interrupt. For us Indians, this looks like bad manners or even stupidity. If you start talking, I’m not going to interrupt you. I will listen. Maybe I’ll stop listening if I don’t like what you are saying, but I won’t interrupt you.

When you finish speaking, I’ll make up my mind about what you said, but I will not tell you I don’t agree unless it is important. Otherwise, I’ll just keep quiet, and I’ll go away. You have told me all I need to know. There is no more to be said. But this is not enough for the majority of white people.

People should regard their words as seeds. They should sow them and then allow them to grow in silence. Our elders taught us that the earth is always talking to us, but we should keep silent in order to hear her.

There are many voices besides ours. Many voices…”

A generalisation is that women have been holding the title of “the chattier gender” since caveman days. You read that right—the very dawn of humanity.

The cranial base architecture of Homo Erectus tells us that he could speak, 

probably as much as we can today. Six hundred thousand-year-old infant and adult skulls show us that the speech centres in the left hemisphere were already larger than the right.

But here’s where it gets wild. While the guys were out there on the hunt, chasing mammoths and avoiding sabre-toothed tigers, they were as quiet as a library after closing.

Why? They didn’t want to scare off their dinner with idle chatter.

So, the million-dollar question is, did this whole “women talking more” blueprint get handed down through the millennia like an ancient text passed from one generation to the next?

Maybe those caveman hush-hush tactics are still playing out today in living rooms and dinner tables all around the world! 

In August 1952, at the Maverick Concert Hall, Woodstock, New York, influential musician John Cage premiered his most notorious composition entitled “4.33” (pronounced “four thirty three”).

The piece has no notes and is almost entirely one of silence.

“True silence, the Utopian ideal of serenity we often strive for, doesn’t exist”, adding that “Silence is the absence of intention”.

Whenever 4.33 is played, it is performed by the audience and the environment, all framed in 4 minutes and 33 seconds, complete with audience coughing, fidgeting and the occasional giggle. All is part of the manuscript, a piece that is constantly being rewritten.

No two performances of 4:33 are, therefore, the same.

Cage wanted the listening of the piece to be the listener’s own action. The listener is just as involved as the performer.  

I found 4.33 on Spotify, but listening to it, I felt that I was not participating. I felt more of an onlooker, and the ”music” did not belong to me.  

Not minimising the value of this work, I did more for my soul, incorporating the silence of 4’33 into a meditation.

John Cage told us that 4.33, a three-movement piece, took him five years to compose, adding, “The sound experience which I prefer to all others is the experience of silence”.

In today’s world, silence has become subjective. A person meditating will flourish in silence; the New Yorker who went camping in the Sonoran Desert could not get to sleep in the silence. 

He quickly arranged for a cassette tape of night-time noises in New York – drivers honking their horns, police sirens, the sound of bus hydraulics as they slow down and so on.  

That was his resource.

Dr. Elmar Jung

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