On Silence

7 Oct

This blog has nothing to do with language. Or, rather, it is all to do with language, the excess of language, people’s inability to shut up.

I think I know what it is. Technology has changed our brains. Anyone over 40: in your 20s, could you even conceive of people walking about talking loudly to the sidewalk and window and shrub about their stds or (to be fair, it’s not just the young) incontinence? No. You couldn’t. I know that. But as we all know, we gave up privacy. I didn’t, or at least I didn’t know I had. But it’s gone. We can be tracked in any number of ways, our bodies scanned, our movements recorded by some Big Brother eye hidden in streetlamps, social networks make it easy for people we do not like to find us. There is no place in the electronic world to hide. And it’s invaded every nook and cranny of the public world as well: have you been in a nice restaurant lately that did not have a TV on? Have you been to a chic outdoor mall lately that did not have someone’s crappy taste in pop music piped onto the street? (Okay, that’s a reference to a specific place, in Ohio, but you know what I mean.) It’s in our ears, our heads, our mouths, on our clothes. It’s in our DNA.

This is my theory. People are really, really different now than when I was a kid, a kid of 20+ or 30+. They are made different.

Recently my husband and I went to a show. It was a show about Miles Davis, great musicians playing drums and sax and bass and piano and of course trumpet, mixed in with images and recordings of Davis speaking and poems and short pieces read really well by a live narrator. I used to think it was just bad luck (bad luck those yahoos sat next to us/in front of us/behind us in the movie theater/playhouse/concert hall), but now I see that it doesn’t matter where we are. They are all around us, all ages, all backgrounds. Well, no, most of them around us are college educated or educators, professionals, students, undergrad and grad. Most of the events we go to are movies at the indie theater and performances on campus. So they’re not from all social strata. They’re from ours.

I don’t go out to listen to yahoos (unless I’m seeing a play of Gulliver, I suppose, but then it would be upper case). I go out to hear the words and/or music of the performers. I pay for the privilege of seeing/hearing them. I go for the experience. We were talking about why this twittering (not that kind, the word that came before the technology, that meant the sound of little birds: bssbssbss) gets to us so much, and I know for me it’s because I get deep into something. I feel the music creeping up my legs and arms, snaking around me. I feel the words falling on my skin and inside my head. I envision what I hear. I imagine. I let myself be with the characters, up there, in an unreal place. I want to let myself be there, wherever it is, a real or imagined place. Then wham. Bssbssbss.  Chatter chatter chatter. I’m out of the experience of the performance, and in the experience of sharing a theater and a world with people who can’t keep their mouths shut, not for two hours, not for an hour, not for half an hour.

I want to turn and ask them why they paid good money, like the rest of us, to come to a performance in order to spend it chattering away and missing it, and whether they might just want to continue their conversation outside. Actually, I want to sock them. Hard. I want to yell and jump over my seat and attack them with teeth and nails and elbows and fists and feet in heavy boots. But I fancy myself a civilized person, not drunk enough to do that, so I might, at most, whisper “shhhh” while feeling my blood pressure rise.  Then I will do my best to lean away from them, and sometimes cup my ears to block them out a little more.

Before you pooh-pooh my tirade for being that of an old Luddite. I’m not. I love my laptop. I love my Nano (RIP Steve Jobs). I love watching new movies at home before they are in theaters. I love my coffee maker (I could bow down before that coffee maker that brews the coffee so that it’s hot and fresh when I drag myself out of bed early in the a.m.). I love all of the appliances that beep at me, or play annoying little tunes: dishwasher, clothes washer and dryer, cell phone. I also love trees, but that doesn’t make me a Luddite. What I don’t love, or like, what I actually hate, is that I fear a future will come where people like me, like us, just stay home rather than ever venture out to a movie/play/concert. Or maybe, as Andre Gregory imagines after his version of the fall of civilization, underground organizations will spring up where those of us who crave an experience, in a room full of silent, silent, entranced perhaps, strangers, can get what we want, for a price.

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2 Responses to “On Silence”

  1. Chris Lawson October 8, 2011 at 3:10 am #

    Although both are low-context cultures (in the formulation of the anthropologist Edward T. Hall), Americans and people from the Nordic countries have different attitudes to silence. A key element resides in the untranslatable “hygge”, which apparently originated in Norway. Unsatisfactory equivalents in English include cosiness, fellowship, security and reassurance or well-being, the original rough translation from the Norwegian. Nordics, like many Asians, will tolerate silence, which, for them, signifies interest and consideration, and indeed, encouragement for the speaker to go on talking. Businessmen in negotiations, take note! And couples during those long cold, northern nights will quite happily sit in silence together, surrounded by the accoutrements of hygge, candlelight, a table piled with food and drink. There is much more to hygge than this: at least two or three pages are devoted to the subject in cross-cultural primers..

    The story is told (in a collection of articles in a book on the sociology of language, whose title, I’m afraid, escapes me) of a Norwegian couple, both academics, who were posted to a university in the U.S. (where? This also, regrettably, is absent from my memory) for a year. After a few months of American verbality, they felt so ill at ease that they packed their bags and returned to the land of mountains, fjords and long winters.

    And lest you think I am being anti-American (which Kim knows is untrue), let me recall an episode in a London theatre. After I had queued for some time to obtain a ticket for a play which had had stellar reviews, I found myself in a very good seat in the stalls. Just before the curtain went up a young lady in the row in front began a conversation on her mobile phone. I was beside myself with rage, but being British, politely asked her to switch off, which fortunately for my blood pressure, she did without demur.

  2. gholcomb October 7, 2011 at 5:24 pm #

    This is a good description of the feeling of being lost in the performance, transported by what’s taking place on stage, and then having that invaded and ruined by, at least in movie theaters, surrounding popcorn-eaters who must comment on everything. Audiences at live performances have to be told now to shut off their cell phones. They have to be told not to carry on conversations with their devices while a performance is going on. If you have to be told this, what kind of attitude must you have about a performance and those around you? It’s not just the loss of civility, though it certainly is that, too. My belief is that people now interrupt the experience others are having because they are not having an authentic experience themselves. They do not have the capacity to be transported by something worth concentrating on, something that is fine and complex, and this must be because they are incapable of having an experience that is authentic. Their attitude is formed on performances that encourage verbal response: simply composed and performed music, simplistically written and acted narratives—nothing challenging, everything that is reassuring. What we may lose, ultimately, is a wide appreciation for complex, even difficult, and challenging art. In its place will be bland culture that doesn’t challenge the audience member to sit quietly and feel transformed.

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