In my husband’s British family conversation is not the default. Apart from the occasional rustle of newspaper, my first breakfast at his parents’ house was consumed in silence. Of course I knew there would be cultural differences to learn to accept and celebrate, but this was a tough one to crack.
You see, my Belgian family does not do silence very well. When the four of us were children, each wanted to be heard. Whoever could shout the loudest would lead. And, if you were not reading, you would be considered available for conversation. Nowadays, on the rare occasions where we spend time together as a family again, we simply revert to the same pattern. Just like that. I do think that we have become a little less loud and a little more particular about the topics discussed. Although sometimes…
Eventually I did learn to accept and, most especially, to celebrate silence. Don’t get me wrong, I am still a very big fan of inspiring conversations over a meal with friends or family. It enriches the experience in so many ways. But I also know that when it feels right to simply sit together in silence, a relationship has reached a higher level of authenticity.
Still, as a linguist, I have always wondered why there is no single verb in the English language that expresses ‘to stop talking’ or ‘not to speak’. If I were to be cheeky, I could suggest that this is the case because the Brits are inherently so reserved that they never need to be told to be quiet? But other nations, with fewer reservations, speak English too.
Human vocabulary is restrictive. Apparently, whenever the Buddha felt that a worldly language was too limited to describe the Noble Truth, he would observe silence. His Noble Silence was much more meaningful than a thousand words. As a meditator, I know that silence not only quietens my mind, it also introduces me to the discipline of conscious speaking. My mind and body will be more discerning before they speak. And when this awareness begins to wane, it is time for me to sit in silence again. But if I don’t realise it myself, my husband will kindly break his inherently British silence to tell me it might be time.
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