We social animals have something most other species do not: the ability to express ourselves through language. Whether it is spoken, written, or signed, we have gone to great lengths to harness the power of words with the singular goal of interacting with each other. Save Juliette on the balcony–alongside other dramatic soliloquies, we pretty much speak (write/sign) to be understood by an identifiable listener.
To be part of the human interaction, that identifiable listener has something of an obligation to add his or her own thoughts, opinions, and responses to the speaker. It would be rude not to answer a question, right? It would seem anti-social to fail to offer insights or advice after learning of a crisis the speaker just shared. It would be simply strange not to add something to the discussion.
And yet . . .
When the listener remains quiet–though wholly engaged by way of body language and eye contact, the speaker is inclined to fill the empty silence with more words. I’ve seen this happen with my spouse, my children, my friends, and my clients.
Therapists and interrogators use the “silent treatment” with their clients and suspects. You’ve probably seen both of those scenes unfold on the big screen. Or maybe you’ve had firsthand experience: in the comfortable chair with the box of tissues within reach or under a hot bulb across an aluminum table from someone with too much testosterone and not enough mouthwash.
Perhaps, as the speaker, you’ve noticed that if you give someone just a little more space, you learn a lot more about that person.
As a writer, I should always be looking for my next story. When I manage to keep my mouth shut long enough, I tend to find one. Someone, usually a friend, will begin talking about someone I don’t know. I’ll hear details about what that friend of a friend is going through and begin to see a picture in my mind. If I start to see outlines and colors, I will gently start to ask probing questions to put sharpness on the forms and brightness to the hues.
But the only way I can get to a mental picture is if I steep myself in silence and wait for my companion to relay an anecdote, a story, or a memory that sets the creative brain-wheels in motion. I feel my heart rate tick up when I know I’m listening to something with potential. I feel myself lean forward so as not to miss any of it and to show my rapt attention.
Thankfully, I don’t have to be hyper-attuned at all times to all speakers. The gleaning of potential future threads only happens when I’m not actively writing a story. Which is the case now.
I just so happen to be looking for a new story idea. So if you and I bump into each other and I seem suddenly struck mute, know that what you’re saying is of such interest that I’m keeping quiet to draw up a mental image.
And if you have an idea for a story, please share it with me. (I have a rich cast of characters just waiting to be thrown back into action.) I promise to be quiet if you do.