⭐ showing love sometimes means shutting up
Today a friend of mine asked me why I hadn't posted in a while, to which I responded that I'd been in a creative slump. While that isn't entirely untrue, the irony of entering a "creative slump" promptly after making a post about how to deal with writer's block is not lost on me. In any case, I've been busy, but (fortunately) the good kind of busy. In the last few weeks I incorporated new hobbies into my routine, like playing the piano and stretching before bed. Of course these new activities play a role in my writing dip, but in the end it all comes down to a simple fact: I simply haven't been making the time to write. I usually write in the morning when I'm at work, but a newly-implemented early morning standup has turned my morning into a hectic scramble. (Meetings before 9 AM should be outlawed with violators sentenced to capital punishment...)
I have stumbled across a lot of thought-provoking gems in the past few weeks, perhaps more than I have time to write about, but the one article that has me pondering the most this week is Andrea Askowitz's Valentine's Day experiment to not talk about herself for 24 hours (archive.ph link). As someone who talks way too much about themselves, this experiment seems tailor-made for me. I know I would struggle with it just as much as Andrea did (if not more), but dulling my constant desire to talk about myself and learning to accept silence in conversation seem like worthy rewards. (FYI — if you notice me doing this in our conversations, please keep talking and pay me no mind. I'm doing my best to listen to you intently. And if on the contrary I'm not doing a very good job, feel free to remind me to be a better listener.)
I shared this article with some friends and one brought up how sometimes you can feel closer to someone after you talk about yourself to them, even if they didn't share anything about themselves. This is the case for many of my closest friends. The people I most enjoy spending time with ask me questions that make me think, give me space to talk, and when I'm finished, respond thoughtfully. And we take turns cycling through these three steps, like a dance. Missing any one of these three vital components inhibits the conversation in a different way. Conversations with shallow questions feel like small talk. Cramped, interrupted conversations don't give me the time to elucidate more nuanced thoughts. As Kate Murphy writes in You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters,
“To be a good listener is to accept pauses and silences because filling them too soon, much less preemptively, prevents the speaker from communicating what they are perhaps struggling to say.”
Embracing silence like in the experiment can also make you realize that you're not a very good listener. As a singer who was forced to go weeks without speaking after a vocal surgery reports:
“I started understanding people better because I didn’t have the option to tell them my opinion, and it also made me more accepting of others because I was able to listen.. … If you can bear to do it for just twenty-four hours … you will learn the unimportance of your words and the importance of other people’s words.”
One potential side effect of this exercise I fear is of being perceived as uninteresting if I become a little too good at shutting up will make people perceive me as less interesting, like in situations where it's normal to be chatty, like at work. I know I'm guilty of harshly judging people as uninteresting from laconic responses to my inquiries. It's great to be heard and all, but I can't have a great conversation without interesting input from other parties. How do we find the balance between keeping quiet about ourselves and not being conversational dead-weights?
I always welcome any opportunity I can get to use voice memo conversations (over iMessage or Signal), and when you view the medium through the lens of conversational hygiene my affinity for it makes a lot of sense. Voice as a medium inherently carries more charm and intimacy than text, and voice memos eliminate a lot of the awkwardness that comes with phone calls, like pregnant pauses or interruptions. You can't interrupt someone over voice memo—they'll always have as long as they want to take to finish their thought. And it's easy to listen to other people's memos (sometimes multiple times, if needed) and take your time thinking deeply about what they said. Maybe treating conversations in person and over the phone more like voice memos would do us some good.
I'd like to end this blog post with another article, this one about how best to serve a friend in despair. Spoiler: it's by just being there for them, which means listening to them and making sure they feel seen and heard. Giving advice or trying to relate (i.e. talking about yourself) means you've likely missed the whole point:
I learned that those of us lucky enough never to have experienced serious depression cannot understand what it is like just by extrapolating from our own periods of sadness. As the philosophers Cecily Whiteley and Jonathan Birch have written, it is not just sorrow; it is a state of consciousness that distorts perceptions of time, space and self.
It’s only later that I read that when you give a depressed person advice on how to get better, there’s a good chance all you are doing is telling the person that you just don’t get it.
I tried to remind Pete of all the wonderful blessings he enjoyed, what psychologists call “positive reframing.” I’ve since read that this might make sufferers feel even worse about themselves for not being able to enjoy all the things that are palpably enjoyable.
I learned, very gradually, that a friend’s job in these circumstances is not to cheer the person up. It’s to acknowledge the reality of the situation; it’s to hear, respect and love the person; it’s to show that you haven’t given up on him or her, that you haven’t walked away.
Enjoy the two articles, and don't forget to listen to your friends and remind them that you're thinking of them. As always, thank you for reading.