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What's so awkward about silence?

Today's youth (and some adults too) don't know the value of silence

Aaron S. Bayley

It’s a phrase that’s being used increasingly and indiscriminately among adolescents and teenagers in recent years. No, I’m not talking about the spurious and ridiculous term “epic fail.” I’m referring to the genuine, but equally overused, expression known as the “awkward silence.”

Today I was watching a small group of Grade 6 students playing soccer in the school gym, and during a brief, quiet stretch in which the students appeared to be intensely focused on passing the ball, one of them yelled out “awkward silence!” One week earlier, at a different school, the phrase turned up again, this time in the classroom, during a silent reading period, no less. A term originally meant to describe a moment of discomfort in the absence of anticipated speech, “awkward silence” has been appropriated into a catch-all phrase that speaks not only to the culture of constant, if meaningless, communication that our children have become accustomed to, but to their seeming inability to function without silence.

Today’s youth operate in a world where perpetual interaction with digital screens is the norm. The blaring media images that compete for their attention on a daily basis are more blatant and more mesmerizing than ever before. Moreover, social media tools like Facebook and Twitter encourage mindless chatter, rapid responses, and instant gratification (a sobering fact, considering these are the tools through which teenagers mediate their relationships with the world and with each other). With so much sensory overload, it’s no wonder that our youth are ill at ease when quiet situations present themselves. In an era of incessant chatter and noise, silence is abnormal. 

Back in the spring of 2010 a friend of mine said to me, “The impulse to communicate often precedes thoughtful reflection.” This always stuck with me because it nicely sums up the challenges young students face in developing meaningful insights when so much of their reality is filled with pressure to react and reply instantly. The idea that every second of every moment does not have to be filled with pablum and purposeless talk is anathema to many teenagers; the concept that silence breeds introspection and independent thought is lost amid the bells and whistles of Twitter alerts and Facebook notifications. Today’s youth find silence awkward perhaps because they experience so little of it. 

The dictionary definition of awkward is “marked or causing embarrassment or discomfort,” as in congratulating a woman on her pregnancy when she’s not pregnant, or learning that the person you flipped the bird to in your car is your new boss: scenarios bound to lead to awkward moments. But another definition of awkward is “difficult to handle or manage.” Clearly, today’s youth are having difficulty managing during moments of silence. Research indicates that the brains of today’s youth are wired differently from children of previous generations who grew up without the Internet. This might explain why so many students cannot get through a period of silent reading without checking their phones or chatting to their classmates. It is a sad irony that, despite the fact social media is supposed to enhance communication and bring people together by allowing them to be “connected” all the time, our youth may be more lacking in social skills than in previous generations. The inability of students to cope with silence is a symptom of a larger problem: mainly, that the countless hours spent texting, Snap Chatting, and watching videos is breeding a generation of anxious, impulsive, and impatient children who want only instant gratification and couldn’t care less about thoughtful reflection. “Here we are now, entertain us” is their motto.

Before they can start to grow as critical thinkers, young people need to view silence as a virtue and not just as an empty space to be filled. Perhaps I am being alarmist; after all, kids are supposed to be noisy and energetic, not quiet and lethargic. Still, they need to learn that they do not always have to be “on.” They need to learn not only to appreciate those moments when it is so quiet they can hear themselves think, but to take advantage of them. And they need to do so without feeling the need to call attention to silence with a silly, vacuous phrase. Now that would be golden.   


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