Is Silence Always Golden? It Depends

For more than 15 years, I have gone every month to the same beauty shop and to the same colorist. And after I go through the process of a single process to cover the gray in my once dark hair, I am sent to the shampoo section. That’s where a newbie, in training, is assigned to soap and rinse my tresses. And it’s invariably a different person each time. I’ll call her (sometimes a he) Shampoo Person.

While Shampoo Person scrubs away, my tongue starts wagging. I have fine-tuned a standard repartee that I use with each new person. It is a bit like Groundhog Day. Why? I cannot stand silence. I equate silence with anger. This stems from my childhood. When my mother was upset, she would stop talking to me for long periods of time. 

Recently, after listening to myself prattle on with the latest Shampoo Person, I came to the reality that silence might be golden. Yes, Thomas Carlyle (Scottish historian and essayist) I will heed your advice prudently: Speak not, I passionately entreat thee, till thy thought hath silently matured itself, till thou hast other than mad and mad making noises to emit: hold thy tongue till some meaning lie behind to set it wagging. Consider the significance of SILENCE.”

Here’s my Shampoo Person repartee that recently went down the drain as I realized it needed to be revised for each person I was with rather than use one formulaic dialogue.

Me: Hi. I’m Meg

Shampoo Person: Hi. I’m …

Me: How long have you been here?

Shampoo Person: A couple of months

Me: How do you like it?

Shampoo Person: I like it. I am learning a lot.

Me: Like what?

Shampoo Person: How to color and cut. We have classes. 

Me: What do you like best?

Shampoo Person: I love it all. How’s the water temperature?

ME: It’s perfect. Do you have a family?

Shampoo Person: I live with my parents until I get on my feet.

ME:  What’s that like?

Shampoo Person: It’s okay. I don’t have to pay rent so whatever money I make now I can save to eventually find my own place. Do you want conditioner?

ME: Sure. Do you have a significant other? 

Shampoo Person: Yes.

ME: What do they do?

Shampoo Person:  He is out of work.

ME: What would he like to do? 

Shampoo Person: He’d like to do marketing, but he’s not been able to find a job.

ME: That’s a shame. (Judgmental. And then I proceed to offer unsolicited suggestions. There I go trying to fix things that I don’t really understand or know much about.) 

Shampoo Person: (She listens not commenting.)  Are you having anything else done today?

ME: No. Am I done?

Shampoo Person: Yes (she says with an edge in her voice), here’s a dry towel.

ME: Thanks.

After this last experience, I began to realize that sometimes it’s important to learn and do something different depending on the person I am with. So, I’ve come up with a short list that might work when quiet is called for and another list when it’s not.

When Silence is Golden

Here are some tips to practice what you shouldn’t preach.

  1. If you’re meeting someone for the first time, don’t be intrusive with your questions. As a reporter, I tend to cut to the quick. Not always polite, smart or kind and considerate of the other person who may be shy or having a bad day.
  2. Don’t babble. This is something I tend to do to fill the silence. It can be annoying to the other person. Perhaps they don’t feel like talking or being hit with a barrage of questions.
  3. People need to believe they are being heard. Repeat what the speaker is saying to you to show you are listening. If you think of something to say, bite your tongue. Interrupting what someone else is saying, is rude and can often cut off the conversation.
  4. Sometimes if a person is talking about a problem, I am tempted to help them fix it—and fast. Don’t. You might think your ideas are wonderful but remember, you don’t have all the information, any insight into the back story and it’s someone you don’t really know.
  5. Ask a question, then listen to the answer. Don’t be thinking of what to say next. Listen.
  6. If someone is confrontational and you might get angry or upset, shut up and put up. Figure out what is bothering you and then wait until the anger diffuses. Think of the best way to resolve the problem. Perhaps use an “I” message to say how you feel.
  7. Do not hurl insults because it will make a potentially explosive situation escalate. Yes, silence can be golden. People really listen best when you don’t speak, interrupt or judge.


When Silence isn’t Golden

There are certain situations when silence needs to be broken, especially in these #MeToo times. Here are a few other examples:

  1. When you notice someone is in trouble, hurt or injured, help. Call 911 and while waiting, talk to them and tell them help is on the way. Offer comforting words.
  2. If you spot a kid or pet left alone in a hot car with the doors locked, call 911.
  3. If you see an elderly person struggling to get out of his car, open a door or try to find a seat on a bus or train, go up and ask if you can help. Then engage in some pleasant small talk. Ask how they’re doing.
  4. If you see someone hurting another person, intervene if it’s safe to do so or at least call 911.
  5. If someone has assaulted you or been abusive in any way, report it. This is definitely no time to be silent.
  6. If you feel overwhelmed and are contemplating hurting yourself, make a call to a professional or a hotline immediately. If someone else ready to do the same, keep talking to them and call a hot line.
  7. If you’re having a conversation in a group and someone throws out an insult or makes a racial slur, staying silent is unacceptable. Rather than get confrontational, simply say how you feel. “That remark makes me very uncomfortable.”

And sometimes it’s kind to ask someone—perhaps a person you’re riding in a car with—if they prefer to talk or would like just to enjoy the journey and some much-needed silence.


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