Scenes from Silent Monday (I)

Happy 2014! I hope you’re all staying warm. This is the first in an occasional series of reflection posts about Silent Monday. 

Intentional silence–silence by choice on Mondays–is forcing me to think hard about involuntary silence. It’s also raised the question of when do I need to speak and why?

Passing someone on the street? That seems like an obvious don’t need to speak situation. A nod, smile, wave or some other gesture passes for acknowledgement of the other person’s greeting or existence.

Impromptu question from a stranger at the gym? Might be able to take care of that with a nod or gesture. Might have to speak.

Picking up a package at the apartment office? One (but not both) of us will have to speak. The Scientist and I divide up the responsibility, taking turns doing the necessary interacting with strangers.

Replying to a stranger who stops me on the street to ask for directions? Obviously requires speaking.

A set of rules forms and like most rules, they work until I run up against the unforeseen exception. 

Intentional is Different from Intent

One morning while running, I passed a young man walking in the opposite direction. He said “good morning” and I nodded, smiled and raised one hand in a gesture of greeting. When he was about 10 yards past me, he yelled back at me in a sarcastic tone “good morning to you too!”

That stung. Obviously, when I didn’t verbally acknowledge his greeting, he was offended and made certain assumptions about me. As his words echoed in my head, a lot of unpleasant feelings starting churning to the surface. Anger. Indignation. Confusion. Pride. Embarrassment.

I wanted to turn back and run after him, tell him that I’m not racist or classist or whatever he mistook me for. On any other day of the week, I would have said “good morning” to him. In fact, I might have said it first.

And then it hit me. While I would never actually run after him and explain, I could have. I generally have the privilege to speak if I choose to. Perhaps not as eloquently as I’d like or as reliably, but even unreliable or glitchy speech is a privilege. On Silent Mondays, I am silent by choice.

That realization got me thinking about what it might be like to be nonspeaking. To regularly have assumptions made about me based on whether or not I verbally replied to others–to strangers, to those in authority, to healthcare workers or those in a position to make decisions for or about me.

And before this starts sounding like one of those icky empathy exercises where people close their eyes for five minutes and declare they know what it’s like to be blind, let me stop there. Because these moments of discomfort don’t actually give me insight into the experience of my nonspeaking sisters and brothers on the spectrum. They’re simply part of my experience of choosing to be silent and of how others react to that.

Which raises the question of how far is too far to take this experiment? Do I need to be silent when approached by strangers? In public? All the time? Most of the time?

While I have a specific intent behind my intentional silence, others aren’t aware of it–not the intentional part and certainly not the intent.


How Far is Too Far?

My instinct is to minimize speaking as much as possible, because I’m literal-minded and rules-focused and silent means silent. But I was forced to consider how committed I was when we went out for dinner on a silence day.

About halfway through our meal, it became obvious that our server and some of the other guests suspected I was mute. The Scientist–taking the role of designated speaker for dinner, since I’d taken a turn at the movie theater–had ordered our meals. Aside from some communication through hand signals, we were silent throughout the meal. I have to admit this felt awkward at first. Like maybe we were unnecessarily calling attention to ourselves or were being silly to flaunt social conventions.

It would have been easier to simply suspend silence day and speak during the meal, but we chose not to. It was a Sunday, the first of two consecutive silence days. We’d never attempted two days in a row. Speaking for an hour over dinner felt like it would have defeated the purpose.

What purpose? In addition to giving my language processing a break, silence days are about being with ourselves.

On that Sunday, we’d just come from watching Catching Fire. Naturally, I wanted to talk with The Scientist about what I’d liked and the characters and the plot and what might happen in the next movie. Instead, spending quiet time with my thoughts gave me the chance to digest them, to see where they would take me if I simply sat with them, free from external input, but also free from the relief of releasing them.

It was just a movie, so this example sounds silly, but the concept is universal. It applies to work happenings and personal crises and all of the ups and downs and neutral events that happen over the course of a day. There’s something about being alone with my thoughts and feelings that deepens and changes how I experience them. Generally this happens in a positive way. Occasionally, it happens in a scary way. I’m learning to appreciate both.

32 thoughts on “Scenes from Silent Monday (I)”

  1. I think maybe that guy is on the autism spectrum himself, and when you didn’t follow the “rules,” which he was going out of his way to follow, that was insulting to him. Maybe he didn’t even register your smile and wave. Runners often don’t reply verbally to “good morning.”

    My sister had a problem with her throat and was told not to speak for a week and she got by with notes. There are various reasons why people don’t speak, aside from literally being mute. There are ways to pantomime “sorry, I can’t speak right now.” (point to your open mouth and shake your head no, etc)

    I’ve studied sign language, and while I know others haven’t and can’t understand it, it’s made me more comfortable with communicating through gestures.

    1. He probably didn’t register my gestures. And you’re right, when I pass other runners, I’ll often just raise a couple of fingers or nod in acknowledgement and that’s more than enough, but that’s also running culture.

      My husband and I are just beginning to study ASL. We’re both enjoying it a lot and are planning to use it to supplement our verbal communication. I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between speaking and communication and how most speaking people simply equate the two.

  2. Reblogged this on Opposite Ends of the Spectrum and commented:
    Now this blog post is giving me something to think about…and I was just considering the fact that she chooses to be silent on a certain day and had contemplated how it might feel to be and someone on a different part of the spectrum who cannot speak. Being a mother of a child who cannot speak, it makes me think maybe this is an exercise I need to try. Now, I hardly ever leave the house but say that I do…my line of thinking is more to take this and go different direction with it and see what it might be like for him to have to use a communication device all day. His speech therapist and parents and everybody you know we want him to suddenly be able to speak in full sentences we know that he’s capable of but we dont know what its like to have to sit there and pick and choose every single word or just type out one letter a time everything in your mind. You know I don’t know how I would accomplish this I’m sure there are some rudimentary programs for my phone or, being horrible person I am I still haven’t returned the loaner device so maybe before I do so I should spend a couple hours or couple days just having it be my only form of communication so I can step in his shoes just a little. I know just trying to show him where things are on his screen how difficult it is for me is an adult so why do I expect so much more from a four-year-old child. I don’t know just food for thought I guess, and I guess should I decide if this is something I want to do then I will let you know how it goes.

    On this Third day of 2014 I have sorely ignored my blog for the most part and usually when I have time to think, and have an idea then I don’t have anything near me to actually record that idea on. Also, when I sit down to write then everything disappears out of my head. But there’s so many things that my kids do everyday, and then I learn things every day that I like to record for posterity sake I guess, and share with all of two followers that I have…so I’m going to try to step it up with the blog and get some stuff done.

  3. I do not communicate well, except in writing. I have experieced the punishment and other consequences which my less than eloquent self engenders. Not-speaking is a thing I deal with both for myself and a loved one in my family because I have a child who has had a severe stutter. She/he can speak. But, she/he has blocks and often when people are waiting to hear words they misunderstand blocks as rudeness. Most people will not or choose not to listen patiently enough to understand. People get very uncomfortable, and even nasty, like the man who snapped at you. It is very hard on my child to be treated unkindly by a stranger for she/he cannot control when the stutter or a block occurs. For years inside myself when these situations happened, I have cringed, cried silently on the inner, raged and screamed silently inside myself and tried to help. It is hard work every day? Yes. My child is an outgoing and friendly person who has a circle of online friends the same age. But, he/she is deeply aware that the world of people will judge and punish a person for the offense of not-speaking.

    1. Sometimes words seem to handicap us. One of my autistic sons is a social person and he likes being held. But being an autist his words have more often brought him sorrow than joy due to being misunderstood. I wonder if perhaps silent days would be a positive thing for all of us to do.

    2. I hadn’t thought about stutterers, but yes, I can see how the same sort of harsh judgment would happen. That has to be so difficult for a child to deal with. Childhood should be a time of being somewhat shielded from the harsher realities of the world. 😦

  4. This is an interesting experiment — giving yourself a break from verbal output and pondering things on your own. That would be so hard for me. I remember once in a therapy group being asked to try being silent for a while after I’d interrupted other members numerous times and finding the experience terribly triggering. I grew up not being heard and finding myself in adulthood with too many words. When the anxiety is really bad or I’m feeling ridiculously inarticulate, I tend to talk around concepts in an attempt to express what I’m experiencing in my head. Maybe your silence is a courageous act (doing what you need to do for you and navigating others’ confusion).

    1. There are times when the silence is hard, but I’m learning so much through it and I really really look forward to the break from verbal communication. We’re also learning ASL, which uses a very different part of the brain and doesn’t feel taxing in the way that verbal speech sometimes does.

      I think I may also be a lot more naturally inclined to silence than you are. In fact, speaking and not being heard is triggering for me, but being silent in the presence of others rarely is. Hmmm . . . that’s interesting to think about.

  5. This is something I did constantly when I was a child. It was a game I would play to see how long I could go before people would notice. I would respond to direct questions but would otherwise remain in silent contemplation. In your case, you could practice what a mute person would have to go through each day. You could rightfully express your indignation to others when they assumed that you were being rude and practice some sign language with them as a response (real sign language not profane gestures). It might get them thinking they need to be a little more cognizant of how they are perceiving a given situation. Your forced helpfulness (passive-aggressiveness) might save the real mute the frustration of that very same situation. Too few people are exposed to blatant handicaps that they fail to think of those with hidden ones.

    1. I haven’t even learned the profane signs yet! I should probably fix that. 😉

      I think you’re right that many people just don’t think about let alone perceive hidden disabilities. My husband was saying the other day how he is much less quick to make assumptions about others since I was diagnosed and we’ve learned more about autism. Until you experience it, I guess it just doesn’t make it onto the average person’s radar.

    1. That was really sweet until the ending. You’re “still” beautiful is an icky message, like she’s beautiful in spite of being disabled. But up until then, I liked it. 🙂

  6. as a child, i was verbal, could talk. yet i chose often to nod and gesture instead of talking. i couldnt always find the words to descrbie the pictures in my mind. even today, i find it hard to express myself. i sometimes wanted or needed something, but wouldnt tell anyone. my mother could guess what i needed, though. that’s not to say i never talked, because i did.
    it took me forever to learn the art of small talk. i didnt know how to start nor follow a conversation. but it’s nothing like being non-verbal, when you can need something desperately and cant say it, when you have a horrible time getting a job, when you cant tell the cashier at mcdonald what you want, dial 911 and cant explain that you’re having a heart attack/chased by a serial killer with an ax/watching your house being burned with you in it. cant ask directions if you’re lost. of course not talking out of choice and only when it’s convenient for you is hardly the same.
    sometimes talking bothers me, and i dont want to talk. maybe talking’s over rated. i love how animals show mute love with their sweet gestures. look at the admiration and total love and happiness in a dog’s eyes. feel the cat rubbing its nose against yours (yes, they do that). who needs words?
    i find talking confusing and demanding. when is the other person bored, and i should stop? when does the other person want me to stay? when should i walk away. i never know what to say, how to respond. when people engage in a long conversation, i just want to run away.

    1. I’m increasingly realizing how much I think visually and how I “translate” from visual representations to words in my head before speaking. Which, as you point out, can make talking difficult and even impossible at times. And, yes, small talk is so confusing.

  7. If I can be very forward here, this kind of thing seems like those that don’t have celiac disease (or other legitimate medical condition) choosing to go gluten free. If you feel better about your exercise, then by all means continue it. That’s what’s great about our modern culture, most people won’t try to stop you from your pursuits. I personally don’t see any value in it when it isn’t properly planned out, why do it on a day that you’re going to be in public? To me, I can’t imagine the point of doing this where it’s going to involve others… at the restaurant, they movies etc (even with a designated speaker). Makes more since to me that the experiment should be suspended once non participants become involved through no fault of their own.

    As for the runner guy, he’s a flat out jerk. First, though it’s nice to say “hi”, or nod, to passersby, it’s not an obligation. I walk my dogs regularly, and it’s about a 75-25 clip that people give a nod, or say “hi” back. There is one guy in the neighborhood that won’t give acknowledgement. He avoids eye contact when I pass his house and he’s in his driveway… the last time, he actually made eye contact and then turned away. I used to be offended at such things. Now I just figure that I must have missed the other person’s signal, or they’re having a rough day. The last thing I’d do is bother correcting someone in the street… to me, that only shows his poor manners, nothing else.

    1. I think the response to a greeting by strangers is also a regional thing. In the Northeastern US, the response rate seems to be really low. When I lived in the SW, not saying hello back was considered extremely rude, especially in the more remote areas. Probably because the “rules of the trail” still apply in so many places.

  8. I had voice problems and often didn’t have enough of a voice to bother talking in public. It was very helpful when I was with my husband and he could talk for me. It was enlightening though to realize how little verbal communication we need to be able to communicate. A nod, a smile, a point communicates a lot. Sometimes I would mouth things along with the gestures and I was understood. I think many people are uncomfortable with silence. I prefer silence to fishing in my brain for something intelligent to say.

    1. I knew that people are uncomfortable with silence when they’re with another person, but it’s been surprising to me to realize how uncomfortable some people are with silence in general. For me it’s the most enjoyable condition. 🙂

      1. I agree – I love an off switch. I have even asked certain businesses to put me on mute rather than hold so I didn’t have to listen to their hold music.

  9. Thank you for this post. As I grow older I find myself getting quieter and feeling less of a need to talk. In fact, I think that many times in my younger years I spoke when I should not have spoken, just because I felt a panic to fill the void of silence. I spoke because I wanted to be vivacious, when in reality I am much more reserved and introspective. The New York Times had a great post recently ( about people who work from home who go days without speaking, since most of their work is done online and via texting.

    I am now reading Susan Cain’s “Quiet,” which talks about how extroversion is overly valued and how introverted, quiet people can actually have better developed ideas. But first we as a society have to learn to value people who are not “dynamic” in the Dale Carnegie sense. I’ll stop talking now.

    1. Yep, that’s me – working from home and most days the only ones I talk to are my husband (if he’s around) and the dog. 🙂

      We have “Quiet” on our bookshelf but I haven’t read it yet. I think she also has a TED talk on the subject, if I’m remembering correctly?

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