Msnowe's Blog

On Silences

Posted in language theory, silence by m.snowe on August 14, 2008

(M.Snowe wrote this silently, at least.)

Silence, as a term, is over-used, misapplied and under-defined. It’s misapplied because many people think silence means the same as “quiet,” or “the absence of sound.” But this is not silence. Stopping your ears with plugs or corking yourself in a sound-proof room does not produce silence either.
As counter-intuitive as it might seem, silence is a part of social interaction. In fact, some (this blogger included) believe silence is more communicative than speech. Silence involves the deliberate absence of speech. Silence, in itself, carries neither negative or positive connotations–but it can be utilized to transmit either.

Back when M.Snowe dabbled in linguistic theory she learned all about the concept of the “signifier” and the “signified.” Basically, words are signifiers, in that they point to something else; they are representatives of actual people, places, things, emotions, etc. The things words refer to are “signified” in language. Example: we use the word “dog” to represent the idea of a dog. But the word itself is not a dog (well, of course!).
Also, language must exist as a whole unit in order for individual words to have relevance. Explanation: every word is defined by its difference from every other word’s meaning (kind of like colors). Without an extensive vocabulary, individual words would lose their meaning, just like without other colors to compare it to, one color would loose its meaning.

Silence is vital to communication–language just can’t make the cut sometimes. Silence is quite possibly the best way to say what you mean, with no words to get in the way. Silence also leaves an incredibly blank slate upon what could turn into an overly wordy situation. Sometimes M.Snowe wishes that she could walk through NYC and not hear any speech while being silent herself–just amble up sidewalks and communicate with the streets in silence–and try to better understand it all. Sometimes trying to say what you mean gets you further away than where you started.

Silence (as a communicative tool) can be confused between people, to be sure. But M.Snowe would like to propose that speech is actually more tricky than silence to comprehend. There are outright liars, fibbers, and people who like to consider themselves as innocently “bending facts.” Then there are people who want to say the right things, or communicate directly, but they just don’t execute. It’s a spectrum of all shades, a rainbow of spoken confusion with no gold at the end in sight. People spend incredible amounts of time puzzling out what people mean from the most mundane of statements. Chances are they will never know from studying the words. The fact of the matter is: the words you say (or can’t say) will never fully do the job. The signifier will never be the signified. What “you mean” and what you say never quite meet. And we wonder why things are so disconnected, on a global or a personal scale.When all this becomes clear–that’s when we should turn to silence. Not only because it transmits multitudes, but because it leaves an aspect of untarnished mystery–it respects the fact that we can’t communicate perfectly–unlike language and it’s futile attempts at lucidity.

Some people in the city find silence unnerving, or uncomfortable. Beware these people. It suggests that they are unnerved or uncomfortable with their thoughts (or with your thoughts) and impulses. But if you can find people who are secure and comfortable with silence now and then in this city of verbosity, and can read the silences…