Green silence / Silencio verde
Green silence / Silencio verde (Photo credit: victor_nuno)

Is this a noise you make?

Is this a sound — an imprecation, really — you hear?

Or ignore?

Here’s a fervent plea for public silence:

EVER since I quit hanging out in Baltimore dive bars, the only place where I still regularly find myself in hostile confrontations with my fellow man is Amtrak’s Quiet Car. The Quiet Car, in case you don’t know, is usually the first car in Amtrak’s coach section, right behind business class. Loud talking is forbidden there — any conversations are to be conducted in whispers. Cellphones off; music and movies on headphones only. There are little signs hanging from the ceiling of the aisle that explain this, along with a finger-to-lips icon. The conductor usually makes an announcement explaining the protocol. Nevertheless I often see people who are ignorant of the Quiet Car’s rules take out their cellphones to resume their endless conversation, only to get a polite but stern talking-to from a fellow passenger.

Not long ago a couple across the aisle from me in a Quiet Car talked all the way from New York City to Boston, after two people had asked them to stop. After each reproach they would lower their voices for a while, but like a grade-school cafeteria after the lunch monitor has yelled for silence, the volume crept inexorably up again. It was soft but incessant, and against the background silence, as maddening as a dripping faucet at 3 a.m. All the way to Boston I debated whether it was bothering me enough to say something. As we approached our destination a professorial-looking man who’d spoken to them twice got up, walked back and stood over them. He turned out to be quite tall. He told them that they’d been extremely inconsiderate, and he’d had a much harder time getting his work done because of them.

“Sir,” the girl said, “I really don’t think we were bothering anyone else.”

“No,” I said, “you were really annoying.”

“Yes,” said the woman behind them.

My husband won’t go to the movies anymore, at least not in the evening, and the reason is twofold — other people attending are so rude and noisy, and I spend too much time hissing at them or saying, loudly, “Shut up!”

Which is, yes, very rude of me.

I admit it, I lost it last week.

I was sitting, reading a book and savoring a coffee, enjoying the luxury of leisure in Manhattan before meeting a friend for dinner. A woman right beside me — with lots of room to sit further away — shouted into her cellphone in Portuguese.

“Can you please lower your voice!?” I finally asked, fearing a nasty fight. To my surprise, she moved immediately and came back to apologize, explaining she’d been speaking to her son, via Skype, in Brazil.

Silence is healing, soothing, calming. It lowers our heart rate and speed of respiration. It allows us to focus on our other senses. It offers us a deep, refreshed sleep. It allows us to focus and concentrate our attention, whether on work, reading or a spectacular work of art in a museum or gallery.

In this post, from July 2011, you’ll read all the sounds I became newly aware of on an eight-day silent retreat Jose and I took. I posted several short essays that week, as peeling away the cocoon of noise/music/conversation/traffic laid bare a fresh set of insights and appreciations that were simply unattainable within the noisy distractions of everyday life.

Here’s the essay I wrote about it for Marie Claire magazine — and what I learned about love expressed through action, not mere words.

When Jose and I re-emerged, reluctantly and nervously, into “real life” I immediately noticed how edgy and anxious noise renders me. I eat more, more often and more quickly. My mood alters, and rarely for the better.

I treasure silence, an increasingly rare commodity.

Do you savor silence?

Where, in your daily life, do you find or create it?

18 thoughts on “Shhhhhhhh!

  1. I’m highly sensitive to sudden, loud noises. Background TV drives me insane and I’m constantly admonishing my husband to “Turn it down, please!” I guess it’s all about context and frame of mind. We’re all bumping up against one another in our various states and the thing that bugs (okay, maddens) me is surely going to confound another. I love a good does of quiet. But, then again–like the annoying people on the train–I also enjoy a good, loud gab with a friend.

    1. I hate that stuff! I am almost physically ill with excessive noise…like in airport terminals where the TV is blaring. I am a disaster in hospital ER waiting rooms for the same reason. I never understand why TVs have to be on everywhere!

      On the other hand, I am known (blush) for a very loud laugh, which I am not sure how to make quieter.

      I hope one of these days to get back out to YVR so we can have a loud gab face to face!

  2. I’m not sure if I “savor” it, per se, seeing as silence is when I occasionally become aware of tinnitus in my left ear; however, mental silence is something I like, especially with all the stuff jumbled up in my head.
    You know, you’ve given me an idea for a short story. I don’t know if it’ll be any good, but thanks for the idea.

  3. As an engineer I have worked in noise quite often, it makes such a difference. You become sensitive to it. On returning home, when my wife was cheerful and wanting to see how the day had gone and what the news was or to talk about plans I found myself churlish and angry. I needed to be silent and in silence to release the tension. I was lucky that she asked about this and when I needed the silence she stepped back and waited. Otherwise things could have quickly got out of hand.

    Noise is debilitating and it can have wide ranging effects over a lot of life. I love still going out into the hills and woods to be on my own, and to enjoy the noisy silence of the wind in the trees.

    Now I don’t do those jobs, and things are much quieter. 🙂


    1. Great point. I now take silence very much for granted, as I work alone at home with no kids or pets to disturb me. I know people love to work in noisy, crowded cafes but it isn’t a good environment for me. I really want to focus when I work and get snappish when interrupted.

      A noisy workspace is really exhausting.

  4. Very interesting post, and it’s great to see silence get some attention in the context of the internet. Yes, I savour silence, and ‘savour’ is the right word. It’s more than healing, I think; it’s a necessity. Just sitting in the backyard, or in the bush, or beside a river. The best kind of silence, I find, is when I’m surrounded by landscape. In short, silence is my raison d’etre!

  5. Nemesis

    Savour it? More than you could possibly imagine…

    Daily respite? Those moments are regrettably and far between, Ms Malled…. However, every now and then… I return… and wander. Alone, but for the AncientOnes.

  6. Your post really spoke to me!
    I just went to see a movie preview of A Late Quartet, a movie about a string quartet (that is, not a big, obnoxious Hollywood movie) that was attended by mostly older people.
    For some reason, there were two couples who would not stop talking during the whole movie! One couple was on my left, in the row behind me and the other on my far right in the row ahead. I kept glaring back at the couple on the left but they didn’t seem to get the hint. Another person kept shushing the couple on the right.
    I know I shouldn’t let it bother me, but it does. I wonder if these people don’t realize that they are not in their living room at home?
    I guess to be fair, since it does bother me a lot, maybe I should be the one who stays home to watch in peace?
    Another pet peeve of mine is people who talk really loudly on their cell phones in public. I have had many thoughts of grabbing the phone and throwing them away…

    1. I disagree! Why on earth should you stay home because others are being so inconsiderate?

      If someone was totally disrupting my movie experience I’d go get the usher; I don’t pay $11 to listen to other people for 90 minutes.

  7. I’m very used to background noise and chatter, have become used to multiple loud cell phone conversations (often in multiple languages) around me. But yes, I savor opportunities for silence–and solitude. I usually get up around 5am, so I can have literal quiet time for myself before the day begins.

  8. tvs everywhere make me crazy. we were at a hotel new nyc recently and they had some loud news program on in the breakfast area. as someone who rarely has the tv on, and never at breakfast, it was so irritating but the only place the food was so we had no choice but to listen to the clatter. the worst past was they were airing items I didn’t want my kid to see or hear – we had her with her back to the tv but she kept trying to twist around to see it and was too distracted to ear – so it was arguing about that the whole time.

    I left a dental practice when they installed tvs at each station. it was supposed to be for the entertainment and benefit of the patients – but I got nervous when I saw the hygienist sneaking peeks at the tv when poking in my mouth with a hook.

    1. “so we had no choice but to listen to the clatter”

      If it had been (bossy) me, I would have immediately asked the management to lower the volume.

      The dental TV thing is probably fairly common in some places, but luckily all my dentist uses for now is nice music.

  9. I live alone so the few hours when I’m home not working two jobs the noise control is totally up to me. I can’t bear to visit anyone who has a television on (I haven’t watched any TV for almost 13 years now). But the only place I know for total silence is at my New Mexico cabin. Complete silence is quite the thing to experience.

  10. Oooooh. You had me at “New Mexico cabin.” Jose and I were lucky enough to stay in such a place (near T or C) a few years ago. The silence was so acute you could hear yourself digesting. I m dying to get back to that.

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