By Mark Vernon - BBC
Silence is golden, but it's under threat in a world where, as business booms and prosperity looms, noise is growing. A composer recently described how orchestras find it impossible to play a piece of her music. The problem is not that she has written too many notes. Neither is it that she requires unusual musical instruments. Rather, it is that in the piece she has written 25 seconds of silence. The pause is intended to build tension. But when they see it, she said, conductors baulk. They fear that musicians would not know what to make of it, and worse, that audiences wouldn't be able to take it. Over such a long period of time, a concert hall would be plunged into near panic. When the last episode of the Sopranos was broad-cast this year, finishing with a sudden cut to black and silence, many baffled viewers assumed there was a fault with the signal.
We live in a society with a growing aversion to the emptiness that comes not just with silence but, more generally, with a fear of not knowing what to say. Consider what might mark someone out as your best friend. For some, it is the person who they don't see for some time and yet, when they do, it is like they have never been apart. Perhaps more commonly today, in the era of mass mobile communication, a best friend is someone with whom you are in constant contact, texting or messaging as automatically as breathing. But there was a time when it was said that a true friend is someone with whom you can sit in complete silence, without a hint of embarrassment or need to fill the space.
Silence as sin
Then there are politicians. For them, to be caught off guard in front of the cameras could result in nothing less than the curtailing of a career. Alastair Campbell famously filled the political day with the "grid". He argued that 24‑hour news loathes a vacuum and that if he did not fill it, an editor or producer would. That is undoubtedly true. But as Douglas Hurd has observed, on some subjects silence might not only be a good policy, it might be more honest. "Silence is regarded as a sort of sin now, and it has to be filled with a lot of gossip and sound bites," he has written.
Not knowing what to say can be social death, as well as political. Everyone can remember a time when they got into a tangle over something, and then—horror of horrors—they then said the wrong thing; they were in a hole and could not stop digging. It can be amusing to watch. Probably the most famous episode of the classic comedy Fawlty Towers was built around Basil Fawlty, played by John Cleese, trying not to talk about the war. "Don't mention the war!" he endlessly repeated and mentioned nothing but, because he could not just shut up. Research suggests that there is a connection between the wealth of a society and the levels of noise within it. A project at Sheffield Hallam University tracked the levels of noise in UK for a number of years. It is rising—in Sheffield city centre, for example, by 3 decibels in 10 years.
A report from the Noise Association this month says that sound levels on the Piccadilly Line of London's underground can exceed that of a jet taking off at Heathrow Airport. And complaints about noise from domestic premises rose almost fivefold in the twenty years up to 2005 in England and Wales, according to the UK government. Then there is Bonfire Night and fireworks. "All the surveys show that people are concerned about noise," Val Weedon, National Coordinator for the UK Noise Association says. "The fireworks issue is an example of that. Thousands of people contact their MPs about it getting out of control."
Now, for all that we can hate it, it might be that we use noise and chatter to protect ourselves. There are people who can't stop talking and would panic if they did. And then there are iPods and Walkmans that create a bubble of noise to keep the outside world out. Some users might even be listening to Simon and Garfunkel singing their song, Sound of Silence: "People talking without speaking, People hearing without listening." But does this matter? I think it does. I know a monk. He spends the majority of his day not talking. The aim is that he lives in quietude punctuated by periods of noise—when in chapel or talking with his brethren. A more usual way of life is exactly the opposite, for most people live in noise and occasionally seek out silence. Speech is shallow. For a monk, not talking has an intrinsic value, since it is then that he is able to listen, notably to the "still, small voice of God."
To put it in secular terms, silence is necessary in order to perceive and understand things. As Thomas Carlyle wrote: "Under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better. Silence is deep as Eternity; speech is shallow as time." That, then, might be the most profound worry about rising noise levels in our society: it stops us from thinking. Or to put it differently, the next time you don't know what to say, don't be alarmed. Try saying nothing.
Mark Vernon is the author of What Not To Say: Finding the Right Words at Difficult Moments.
“There seems to be an aversion to silence. All anyone need do is notice how many people seem unable to relax in their back garden without throwing open the patio doors to let their hi‑fi blast out, or those who are unable to clean their car without having its stereo switched on.”
“I think that Douglas Adams got it scarily correct when a race of people talked incessantly in order to stop their brains working, I think we use all the noise as an excuse to turn our brains off. Turn on, tune in, drop out—maybe we should turn off, drop in and start thinking again.”
—Kay, Bampton, Oxon