Silence Demanding Its Say

I’ve been thinking a lot about silence lately; although that general topic or concern or phenomenon (I’m still not sure how to define it) has spread itself over multiple subject boundaries, the area in which I’m currently settled has to do with public space. Namely, how much silence should we expect or demand in different sorts of public places– trains, coffee shops, parks?

Set photo from Ingmar Bergman's The Silence, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Set photo from Ingmar Bergman’s The Silence, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

One aspect of that query might just entail considering what’s justifiable in terms of the volume of people’s conversation; the high-decibel vulgarian splashing one crude side of a dialogue throughout an entire train carriage would seem obviously unacceptable– but that’s an extreme, and hence, easy, case for Ethics 101. And then we have a situation such as the following: a friend of mine, just back from a coffee shop we’d frequented in college for studying, and which was still used by the same sort of crowd for the same purposes, couldn’t understand why she was getting the stink-eye from multiple tables in reaction to her toddler’s spinning around the middle of the floor accompanied by his own choral stylings. How could they not find that funny, she demanded? I wish I’d been willing to go more in-depth into that conversation, and to emphasize how you really do need to understand and respect what’s appropriate for a given atmosphere– but having any sort of discussion these days that might possibly involve even the slightest hint of not finding people’s kids in the right, all the time and in all places, tends to put you in the path of unjustified parental wrath, and so I slunk out of that potential confrontation like a true coward’s coward.

Maybe what I’d like to know is whether we have– or should have or expect– a right to silence, and to silence that goes beyond the bounds of our own private, isolated spaces. If democracy entails the need for equal-opportunity, equal-access public conversation, might it also require a place to come together in, or at least experience together, silence? Since listening is an essential part of meaningful conversation, and since said listening necessarily entails some level of silence from the person engaging in it, might we, in fact, need somehow to practice silence, and to do it together?

I don’t know– and I’m aware of the fact that my speculations initially stem from my own frustrations at trying to read and/or write in places, such as libraries or–again– coffee shops, not obviously dedicated to loud or even noticeable exchanges. Even as I write this post, camped out in the lobby of a downtown corporate skyscraper, I’m irked at the mid-career go-getter offering pseudo-chill life hacks* at a volume just high enough to allow others outside of the conversation to benefit from his wisdom. That tendency, of course, is the nature of this variety of dude, and even of this particular space, which is usually filled either with the voiced assurances of unsolicited advisors or bored entry-levelers wasting their lunch breaks by scrolling through useless information on their phones. And so, expecting silence here is both unrealistic and somewhat unfair; it’s not part of the accepted nature of the place.

Then there’s also the question of the quality of the silence that prevails; going back again to being silent together, it’s not just a matter of being able to enjoy a lack of aural intrusion into your own personal space. I’m thinking once again of coffee shops, where most people these days have some form of earplug or -phone blocking out the sounds surrounding them, in favor of some private audio stream doing direct damage to their stereocilia. Sure, it’s much more conducive for yours truly to get work done under those circumstances– but being willingly excluded from a shared phonic atmosphere does nothing to help us inhabit a space together. Again, though, that’s not what everyone’s there for, and hence, once again, I might have to retract my concerns or complaints about this particular scene.

Like most of the things I’m interested in, trying to find an answer to my questions is probably impossible, and equally as likely undesirable. But for the time being? If that guy could just shut up about the mind-blowing insights of What Color Is Your Parachute?, or at least give his motivational speech at a lower decibel level, I’d be satisfied.



*Did I really just use that phrase? Even employing it as a form of character disparagement makes me feel compromised. Also, you probably couldn’t include this particular bro and his continual employment of business, corporate-spiritual, and Urban Slang Dictionary vocabulary in fiction without people thinking the writer had simply gone too far.


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