Most of life is so dull that there is nothing to be said about it, and the books and talk that would describe it as interesting are obliged to exaggerate, in the hope of justifying their own existence. Inside its cocoon of work or social obligation, the human spirit slumbers for the most part, registering the distinction between pleasure and pain, but not nearly as alert as we pretend. There are periods in the most thrilling day during which nothing happens, and though we continue to exclaim, "I do enjoy myself," or, "I am horrified," we are insincere. "As far as I feel anything, it is enjoyment, horror" — it's no more than that really, and a perfectly adjusted organism would be silent.
— E. M. Forster

The passage above, from Forster’s novel A Passage to India, is interestingly placed at the beginning of a chapter (XIV) in which silence does not prevail and talk, some of it hysterical, snowballs into an unfounded character assassination of one of the book’s fictional inhabitants. It sums up nicely one of the overlooked virtues of silence: its role as the desirable condition of creatures when there is not anything in particular that they need to say or do, and its great merit in being a state less likely to lead to trouble than its opposite: talk.

Forster was not the first or the last to praise silence; people do it all the time and it’s unfortunate that the praise of silence always takes the form of words, which have the function of usurping silence from the get-go. But how else are you going to call attention to the benefits of silence? If you do so by exemplifying it, chances are that no one will notice, because praiseworthy silences are always context-driven. You wouldn’t know that from the worthies whose words have come down to us in praise of silence; they give the impression the silence generally is a marvelous thing, like Shakespeare in Much Ado About Nothing:

Silence is the perfectest herald of joy: I were but little happy, if I could say how much.

or the Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle:

Silence is deep as Eternity, speech is shallow as Time.

The great thing about Forster’s quote is that he sets his readers up for the expectation that opportunities for silence will be wasted and then he shows us the consequences of talk. Like other great novels, A Passage to India repays the investigation of themes that you may wish to explore in it. It’s instructive to skim through the occurrences of silence in the text of the book (which you can do here) to see how different characters use it or respond to it.

Is the modern hooked-up and linked-in world losing an appreciation for silence? You would have to be living under a rock not to think so. Here’s Aldous Huxley in a good old-fashioned, silence-defying rant, written in 1946: before the advent of television, the Internet, mobile telephony, social networking, and Twitter:

The twentieth century is, among other things, the Age of Noise. Physical noise, mental noise and noise of desire — we hold history's record for all of them. And no wonder; for all the resources of our almost miraculous technology have been thrown into the current assault against silence. That most popular and influential of all recent inventions, the radio is nothing but a conduit through which pre-fabricated din can flow into our homes. And this din goes far deeper, of course, than the eardrums. It penetrates the mind, filling it with a Babel of distractions, blasts of corybantic or sentimental music, continually repeated doses of drama that bring no catharsis, but usually create a craving for daily or even hourly emotional enemas. And where, as in most countries, the broadcasting stations support themselves by selling time to advertisers, the noise is carried from the ear, through the realms of phantasy, knowledge and feeling to the ego's core of wish and desire. Spoken or printed, broadcast over the ether or on wood-pulp, all advertising copy has but one purpose — to prevent the will from ever achieving silence. Desirelessness is the condition of deliverance and illumination. The condition of an expanding and technologically progressive system of mass production is universal craving. Advertising is the organized effort to extend and intensify the workings of that force, which (as all the saints and teachers of all the higher religions have always taught) is the principal cause of suffering and wrong-doing and the greatest obstacle between the human soul and its Divine Ground.

You wonder how Huxley would cope with life today, when our world is even more glutted with words that regularly escape their writers and speakers and are instantly broadcast globally, long before anything like reflection might take place. Would Mr. Huxley have a Twitter account? Would he post status updates on Facebook? You would hope not, but we are all creatures of our times to some degree.

We looked at silence in a historical context to see how it might be faring with the public, and the results suggest that the masses are indeed losing a taste for it. Here’s a telling graph from Google Ngrams, showing the trajectories of dignified silence and awkward silence over the last couple of centuries:

Dignified silence seems to have reached a peak of sorts around 1820 and it has been on a mainly downhill course since then. Awkward silence, on the other hand, seems set on an unstoppable career path. If you fear awkward silence yourself, you can generate this Ngram graph on your own internet-connected device and then click on Tweet, further contributing to the demise of dignified silence — for Twitter surely is the greatest threat to dignified silence that the modern world has yet developed. Other salient collocations of adjective + silence show similar patterns when viewed historically: embarrassed silence overtook respectful silence in about 1940; Eerie silence skyrocketed past discreet silence in the 1980s.

Today’s world does indeed seem to be much more friendly and welcoming to the silence-avoider than the silence-seeker. There is, for example, TweetSpeaker, an iPhone app that that reads Tweets out loud. TweetSpeaker gets gushing reviews from its users — one blogger describes it as “crazy beautiful.” But surely, if you wished to design a perfect hell, you would ensure that its inhabitants all had TweetSpeaker on their iPhones, tuned to break up silence with the Twitter feeds of the Kardashians, perhaps, with no possibility of turning them off for eternity.

Will today’s younger generations miss the opportunity to experience, exploit, and learn the virtues of silence? We ponder this when we see reps of these generations in situations in which the enjoyment of silence is a possibility. They are never actually enjoying the silence; they are completely engrossed in the diversions available to them through their electronic devices. Though it requires words to do it, it seems worthwhile to point out that there are still — and always will be — times when nothing need be said, events and utterances that do not require us to give a response, and many situations when there is much is to be gained by attending to the dwindling supply of silence available to us.

Rate this article:

Click here to read more articles from Language Lounge.

Orin Hargraves is an independent lexicographer and contributor to numerous dictionaries published in the US, the UK, and Europe. He is also the author of Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions (Oxford), the definitive guide to British and American differences, and Slang Rules! (Merriam-Webster), a practical guide for English learners. In addition to writing the Language Lounge column, Orin also writes for the Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to visit his website. Click here to read more articles by Orin Hargraves.

Join the conversation

Comments from our users:

Monday September 3rd 2012, 2:04 AM
Comment by: Dilettant
There does exist one modern ritual, that fosters a special kind of silence.

Virtual conferences mixed with Robert's Rules do often demonstrate silence as being the most productive phases. Following the ritualized questions for acceptance of a motion - these wonderful endless seconds of silence fill the virtual space among the participants until - the moderator proclaims, that the motion has been accepted, since no one spoke up against.

This silence is mostly felt as a huge relief. Exactly like that virtue of silence, when there is not anything in particular that one need to say or do.

But now I have written enough in a language that is foreign to me.

Thanks for the silent reading and all the best,
Monday September 3rd 2012, 2:40 AM
Comment by: Rosina W. (San Francisco Bay Area, CA)
Thank you, Mr. Hargreaves. These days, the virtues of silence are *sorely* overlooked.

Although I'm a Boomer, and more predisposed in favor of silence, I believe I would value it objectively.

Why? The internal monologue/dialogue inside one's head, which is responsible for so many creative ideas, gets distracted by, and/or drowned out by, the usual irrelevant, interfering, random sounds of the world around us.

Younger people may be more flexible in this regard. I see that as a positive phase in human evolution.

As for me, I work best when it's quiet...

Thanks ~
Rosina Wilson
San Rafael, CA
Monday September 3rd 2012, 2:46 AM
Comment by: Rosina W. (San Francisco Bay Area, CA)
Hello Stefan ~ I loved your description of your "Roberts' Rules" situation. You express yourself extremely well, and I didn't realize that you are not a native speaker of English until you said so.

I look forward to staying in touch here in VT.

Alles beste,
Rosina Wilson
Monday September 3rd 2012, 5:26 AM
Comment by: Roger R. (TX)
Would like echo (albeit quietly, if not silently) Rosina's observations about Stefan and his thoughtful contribution.

Immediately upon reading Stefan's comment I clicked his name in hopes of discovering more about him. Is he a Romanian Dumitru? D'mello from Portugal? Polish Dabrowski? No joy

but that of pondering the power of a desire to know and be known within the context of a second language sufficient to motivate such a result.


Monday September 3rd 2012, 5:44 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Monday September 3rd 2012, 6:16 AM
Comment by: Rudolf M. (Almonte Canada)
all of us who suffer from tinnitus know what we are missing.
Monday September 3rd 2012, 7:09 AM
Comment by: Ann W. (Bridgetown Canada)
Excellent comments giving one lots to think about in silence. When my mother died in 1985, many people said that they didn't visit me because they didn't know what to say. My reply: "You didn't have to say anything. Your silent presence would have been enough."

Bridgetown, NS
Monday September 3rd 2012, 9:10 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
And for the spiritually-minded, from the Bible:
"Quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger." (James 1:19)
Those vows of silence that monks take are certainly rooted in ancient wisdom!
When I say "profound", I found your article of great depth and wisdom.
Monday September 3rd 2012, 9:46 AM
Comment by: Sergey M. (Baltiysk Russian Federation)
There is ample opportunity to have as much silence as you wish these days as there had been before the advent of mass produced electronic means of communication including mobile phones, the Internet, and tablet PCs. Life has not changed that much, no matter how emphatically our notorious electronic devices manufacturers, the Internet providers, and restless wireless carriers try to persuade us otherwise. Silence is more sought after by the aged people than by the young. And when it is needed it can be easily obtained.

Age, just like death, solves all the problems! As much as you can find yourself to be able to resist the temptation to seek distractions and tickling stimulus to your senses, you can always reach out to the “mute” button or turn on the “silent mode” on whatever pesky electronic device you happen to have on you at the moment..
Monday September 3rd 2012, 10:47 AM
Comment by: Peter L. (Columbia City, OR)
Monday September 3rd 2012, 11:39 AM
Comment by: George S. (Providencia Chile)
Many thanks for these wonderful and silent thoughts. We don't appreciate silence because silence's presence is absent in most of our daily activities. Most of the time, we are anxious to enjoy it, being within ourselves, to dream, to plan, to hear rain drops, hearing how leaves are chatting, to enjoy those sounds of silence.
Thanks a million, George

George E. Swaneck, M.D.
Calle COPIHUE # 2858 Depto. # 402.
Providencia 7510170
Santiago, CHILE
Celular: 9-811-4480
Monday September 3rd 2012, 11:45 AM
Comment by: begum F.Top 10 Commenter
"Robert Rules" are imaginary silence creator tool in live society. I believe it turns to be unsuccessful very soon. As civilization rolls down so does human beings response. Response by creating chaos is a credited point that demonstrates Thermodynamic law. We can't do U turn here. I think, we lost silence era for ever. Now, with human being, domestic pets (dogs, cats, monkeys) have joined and by creating noise for their rights and rituals they have amplify human sounds.
For true "silence" realization we now have to visit our future graves time time to time and I think some people have started this practice in the name of stunt show.
Monday September 3rd 2012, 12:24 PM
Comment by: Hovannes K.
Thank you! I read, and re-read, and re-read in silent admiration this beautiful talk about silence.
Monday September 3rd 2012, 1:10 PM
Comment by: Tom D. (Grand Rapids, MI)
Thank you for thoughtful article. I think you and the readers will enjoy:

The Last Quiet Places
Monday September 3rd 2012, 1:51 PM
Comment by: Marah (Mount Shasta, CA)
grok grok
Monday September 3rd 2012, 3:15 PM
Comment by: Rees M. (Ann Arbor, MI)
Superb and insightful article, focused on the value of silence. But I want to draw attention to a kind of noise that is not annoying: hearing or reading an exciting, novel, interesting, creative idea. Some ideas even bring shivers to me as I contemplate their implications. Without this class of noise, we would have a rather dull life. As illustrated by references to Twitter and Facebook, the written word is also a purveyor of noise. I try to be selective so the words I read have a high frequency of bringing unusual ideas, some of which stir me to make my own noise — as this piece did.
Monday September 3rd 2012, 3:48 PM
Comment by: Kristine F.Top 10 Commenter
So many words of song and squawk,
Of voices, noises, type and talk!
One word I ventured to unlock,
And did, and now I grok "grok."

The Happy Quibbler
Monday September 3rd 2012, 4:00 PM
Comment by: Richard F. (San Diego, CA)
Wonderful article for me, especially the Huxley quote, and the telling frequencies of the different adjectives used with silence. Thanks.
Tuesday September 4th 2012, 11:58 AM
Comment by: Deborah G.
For the achievement of the state you are describing, Twitter, Facebook, and all of social media notwithstanding, there is one excellent remedy. Fifteen minutes of meditation, by any method of your choosing. Listen to the breathing and watch thoughts pass like clouds, following none. Outer noise fades away, and inner noise quiets until only the still lake of inspiration remains. I highly recommend it!
Monday September 10th 2012, 12:54 PM
Comment by: Celticqueen
I wholeheartedly agree with Deborah G. My husband and I have taken a course in Mindful Meditation at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. It was based on the work of John Kabat-Zinn. It has truly enriched and changed our lives. Research in how meditation can alter brain structure is being done here at the UW-Madison by Richard Davidson. He is well known having studied Tibetan monks by putting them in scanners to see what the brain does when they are meditating. He has just published a book called "The Emotional Life and Your Brain: How Its Unique Patters Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live--and How You Can Change Them.
My first encounter with natural silence was in the Rocky Mountain National Park back in the 60's. Shortly after we were married, my husband and I did a camping and canoe adventure in the Quetico Provincial Park in Ontario Canada. Since 1986 we have gone back most years. It is our Paradise!
Saturday September 22nd 2012, 4:20 PM
Comment by: Jana B.
Thanks for these timely thoughts. Reminds me of the difficulty young actors have these days learning the power of the pregnant pause. I just stumbled across this as well: Pico Iyer's "The Joy of Quiet: Desperate to Unplug." See a video interview here:

Do you have a comment?

Share it with the Visual Thesaurus community.

Your comments:

Sign in to post a comment!

We're sorry, you must be a subscriber to comment.

Click here to subscribe today.

Already a subscriber? Click here to login.