The sound of silence


Have you been to the Amazon rainforest in Brazil? A few years ago I had the experience of Amazon rainforest. There were many firsts that made to my list of experiences and knowledge in that trip. The first canopy walk, at least three layers of trees could be seen below, the first sighting of red monkeys, white caimans, ants that could kill, trees that walked, an animal called tapir, the sunrise and the sunsets. The most exhilarating of all these experiences was the sound of silence. On our first boat safari at night, the boatman switched off the engine and the lights in the middle of the river for us to ‘soak in’ the night experience. Intimidating for the first few seconds, the quietness of the night enters your soul. Our tour guide repeated the same act of going still while on a night trail in the jungle. Scared in the beginning, of snakes and ants that could crawl up, the feeling of stillness has lingered ever since. 

So this week when I curated my weekly edition of articles for the Read Aloud club, I included one story on the sound of silence in New York during this pandemic. The article is about the absence of daily humdrum and noise that was a significant assurance of a safe life.  It says, ‘We ache for – what was’ & ‘Now, perhaps, we will listen more closely.’ 

Silence at the Amazon river was about soaking in the sound that we miss otherwise due to other ambient sounds. Silence in the New York Times article is the opposite of being calm, a not-so-happy reminder of what was a normal life. 

Silence as an experience: 

The sound of silence is always powerful as silence is both an individual experience and a collective experience. Silence can be a reaction in affirmation or in revolt, it can be an expression of stun or of pain. One can choose to remain silent or can be forced to be quiet. It is easier to take note of an individual’s silence. It has the ability to evoke different kinds of emotions within you.  Like, there is a stunning, short moment of silence before applause of a great performance that amplifies the joy. At the same time, if it lasts too long, like a pandemic’s sound of silence, it urges the mind to get back to the noise, making one feel restless. If you live in Mumbai, you would have noticed the heartbreaking lack of dhol music, noise for some, that filled the air during these ten days of the Ganpati festival. It is eerily quiet and I am sure many of us long for the music.

In 2020, we experienced collective silence, the quietness that has been evoked by lack of music, lack of traffic sound and has been heavy on everyone experiencing it. It is this quietness that we need to be cognizant of as it carries a message in the business life. A message that can abode both good and bad. 

In the education world, silent pedagogy is focused around two main tenets: reserving judgement, and acknowledging our shared ignorance. As a space before opinion but after recognition, silence can help students experience the emotions of reverence and sympathy without having to dissect or explain the phenomenon before them. In this space, ignorance becomes a reality that we all share, not a liability to mask or overcome.

This is however missed at workplaces and in day to day life. The value placed on talk as opposed to silence is a cultural bias towards talk means that silence is commonly perceived negatively. 

Practice silence at work

Observing silence in and around life is the ability to think. Like listening, it is a skill. This is not related to meditation but is the ability to be observant and then to draw further notes about the silence. 

In teaching, educators have been trained to observe the importance of silence for students to learn. The paper- Silent pedagogy and rethinking classroom practice: structuring teaching through silence rather than talk1 concludes by proposing that classroom observations should take into account the complex skills of ‘silent pedagogy’ where the teacher makes conscious decisions to abstain from intervention based on continuous sensitive readings of the learning environment.

Encouraging silent pauses during meetings helps in thinking and responding carefully by other participants. Silent pauses also encourages people, who speak less, to voice their opinion. Silence creates a safe space.

The problem of plenty: too much silence

Prolonged silence or the missing sound, like due to pandemic, has created numbness in a different form. What are the types of sound that you miss about work? Give that a moment. Ask your team. Take a note if it is just the clanking of shoes running for the elevator or is it the laughter of the canteen? While writing this, here are some ‘missing’ things that I picked up from linked in post by Meghana Chandani that showed up on my timeline. 6 out of 9 things she has listed are sound related.

  • A colleague hurriedly calling out to you saying that the cab is down, while you quickly take the last bite of your lunch
  • Those moments when everyone is speaking at the same time and you’ll realise – ‘wait, what just happened ?’
  • The constant banter, the plans for saturday night house parties and the plans for early morning cycling tours (that never really happen) 

How about hosting a zoom session while eating lunch? Let the spouse, family, everyone chip in to the banter. Observe the sound of silence in your dealers’ routine, in your customers’ life. A restaurant had a large bell on its exit. It encouraged satisfied customers to ring the bell and as the bell rang, all table bearers would cheer up with a ‘thank you’ shout in unison. Can this be replicated between social media and home delivery? 

Can one send a sound mail of the factory running or the truck loading or the cash drawer ringing to the team to enthuse work from home? 

Sound plays an important role. A brief period of silence, a pause encourages thinking while in contrast, the absence of sound for a long period of time may create an impression of a loss or dullness. Brighten up lives by observing the sound of silence. It makes the business more empathetic. It brings in a culture of joy and happiness and productivity. And, just observing the silence gives you plenty of ideas. 

There is always some music to the ears in the sound of silence.

1., Cambridge Journal of Education, 38:2, 265-280,

(This article, the sound of silence was originally published in 2020)

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