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Illustration by Grace Shieh

On Silence: Progressing through Life as a Quiet Person

Here’s to those who choose to express themselves not through words but through other alternatives, and to those who find comfort in silence. And to those who choose to be vocal: someone’s silence is not a sign of weakness or unintelligence.

Oct 11, 2020

You’re expected to speak. Articulate your thoughts. Ask questions. You stand in the middle of a battle ground in class, your words serving as a shield that guides you to peace. But it’s not that easy. Speaking is not a simple task for some, and silence — a motionless state of their vocal cords — is where they stand. This doesn’t mean they’re not thinking. They’re speaking through silence.
I don’t like to talk. Some call me shy, others call me quiet and sometimes when I talk, I can barely hear myself. On the first day of class I tell everyone that I don’t like to speak, in hope that they will leave me alone. And most of the time, they do — for I am quickly, easily forgotten, with no voice to be remembered.
“Were you at class yesterday? You weren't, right? Oh you were? But you didn’t talk at all, that’s why I thought you’re not there.” We all fit into one zoom screen. It’s not that difficult to notice. I was there. And I nodded when you spoke.
And when people ask me why I don’t talk, there’s no one simple answer. Sometimes I don’t want to, sometimes I don’t like to, sometimes I’m incapable of and most of the times, I choose not to.
We’re encouraged to speak, to be vocal, to voice our thoughts. On syllabi there frequently is a 10 percent participation grade. People tend to avoid silence — awkward silence like the one overwhelmingly present in an elevator, the kind of moment that seems to solidify air into unbreathable, pressing substances. And yet I choose to live in a silent moment. It’s an embryo of tranquility that a voice eager to speak would easily penetrate through, without realizing what it had done. But in all quietness, there exists a comforting place.
So why is it? For some, the attention their voices draw makes their knees tremble; for others, the foreignness of the language they’re forced to communicate in halts their words like obstacles in a tunnel; for others well, they were never asked to speak, and the sudden change leaves them bewildered, unsure of what to say; and some simply enjoy listening over speaking. I cannot know all the reasons for their silences; all I know is that it is personal.
For me, speaking forces my mind into a difficult territory that I’m still learning to navigate. In my mind, the world exists in colors, sounds and smell, but not numbers and letters; I hear music in the color of sunrise, I smell frost in the chirping of the birds. Using words means transforming all those that were not words, all those that were not meant to be in words, into phrases that will never truly explain what they are.
Other times, silence means being able to pay more attention to observe what is happening around me, or more time to think, for I cannot think when I’m speaking. It may also mean that I’m tired, and I simply wish to recharge by having my daily dose of solitude.
Instead of amending us all into machines that fire words, try to look for ways in which we can speak in our own voice and comfort. I’m learning how to become a better speaker, and sometimes I may need a push, but expecting me to talk five times per class or keep up a conversation for three hours at an outing is unrealistic. Class forums, emails, Zoom chats, journals or presentations with index card notes are all useful alternatives to speaking, and I have learned that I can speak more freely as long as others respect the various ways through which I prefer to articulate my thoughts. If you’re willing, you can also look into my paintings and clarinet performances to hear what I have to say through art. But don’t judge someone by the fact that they never speak in class. They are not unintelligent, weak or lazy. It may just be that it requires more from them to speak up, so cherish your strength as an eloquent speaker and be kind.
Growing up, I used to resent my preference for silence over words and tried to change myself. I became the most active Model UN participant at my high school and collected awards even though I didn’t enjoy it. I tried to talk nonstop, even when what I was saying was complete nonsense. We’re told that voices are good, and they can indeed be, but no one has ever told me that silence has an equal weight in our lives. There is no music without rests, no room for thoughts when lines after lines of words come bashing into our faces. I was scared of silence, even though I know I find comfort in it.
But this does not have to be. If you prefer uttering words only when they’re most needed, let it be. I’ve learned to make peace with the silence around me. I don’t have to be like anyone else; there’s no need to push for words, as long as we’re speaking, living and thinking life like others. Silence isn’t the absence of voice, it’s a preference, a statement, a reflection of who we are.
Even without words, there are many ways to show that you care, that you’re thinking, that you have a voice and an opinion — though these ways may not be the same for everyone. And all I ask of you is to listen. Listen not for words, but for what we have to say, in whatever shape or form we present it in. The voice is an ambition. And it does not always have to be heard.
Grace Shieh is Deputy Features Editor and Illustrator. Email her at
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