science of us

The Intimacy of Socializing in Silence

Photo: Sickles Photo Reporting/Getty Images

I live in an apartment just off Broadway, one of New York’s highest-decibel streets, in a location so close to the subway that I feel a rattling in my room every five minutes (eight minutes on weekends). My roommates, a couple probably/hopefully in the process of uncoupling, spend most of their free hours adding to the noise levels by playing the sort of music that is like a prolonged moan, or maybe a whale dying, while yelling at each other. When in a good mood, they narrate everything they are thinking to each other and, by way of thin walls, me.

This is all to say that I’ve been thinking a lot about silence lately, and longing for a time when it was more available to me. Silence — or more precisely, a low-decibel ambience — is rare to encounter in a city. Sometimes when walking in Riverside Park, where sound is absorbed by trees and dissipates over the wide water, I experience it briefly. However, most of New York is ruled by the displacement of air particles by sound waves. Throw a bunch of people and cars into a shiny, metal canyon and you get the mostly hazardous soundscape of a city.

According to a guide by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, the sound of the subway is around 90 decibels, 5 decibels above what constitutes a hazardous noise. Normal conversation, which my roommates happen to know nothing about, falls at around 60 decibels.

What is particularly baffling to me about my roommates is not the fact that they are still dating, but rather that adding to noise pollution is how they choose to spend all of their waking hours. It’s not just them; this is the cultural norm. Subjecting ourselves to noise, whether it be a rock concert (about 110 decibels) or a school cafeteria (about 85 decibels), is most people’s primary mode of socializing. We’ve been acculturated to be uncomfortable with being silent while in the presence of another and, when confronted with silence, will fish for something to say. We often talk less to talk and more in hasty avoidance of unstirred air. Silence, for the uninitiated, can be unsettling. Human breathing falls at just 10 decibels.

When I first moved to the starless, noisy city, my circadian rhythms fell out of rhythm and I couldn’t sleep for the large part of a summer. The sensory stimulation was so much to process that I didn’t actually have the energy to think about myself. Soon my depression was blotted out, the way that enough harsh, quick air can suppress a flame. I forgot about my desires, my preoccupations. I became a mindless, depression-free organism navigating its environment by instinct. Noise was like a nice babysitter to my neurosis that kept it well occupied. I became carefree in moments, almost fun.

Yet after some time of dimming out the sound of myself with noise, I found its appeal wearing off. I missed the way, in silence, I could see myself most clearly. I grew up in a town where time passed with a granular slowness and boredom was the closest thing we had to a culture. I lived next to a former brickyard that became a manmade pond and is now a large algae bloom. This is how small towns move, blooming and decaying in long, predictable stretches. I wanted to learn how to move like that too.

When others were experimenting with drugs in college, I began experimenting with low-decibel socializing. Rather than trying to always fill the uncomfortable space between someone, there is an intimacy that comes with occupying it with them and letting time pass. It’s a different way of getting to know someone. You become more attuned to the subtle qualities of a person — you learn their presence, their rhythms, the cues of their moods. Socializing in silence is less about communication than about presence, the feeling of being with that person.

In a poetry class in college, I learned that Wallace Stevens shared an apartment with his wife, but they would often not talk for long stretches of time, circling about the same space in their separate spheres. This struck me as my ideal way of socializing. I immediately told my best friend about this and we began trying it. I would go over to their house and read on their front porch, while they painted their nails in the bedroom, and then we’d converge hours later, maybe make a meal together. Sometimes we would walk to the narrow, wooden pedestrian bridge overhanging the train tracks and wait to feel the train surge beneath us, taking it all in wordlessly.

Later in college I befriended a woman who shared my interest in socializing in silence. She compared it to a concept in childhood psychology called “parallel play,” the phase when toddlers learn to play parallel to each other, but without engaging. We developed a routine of testing out this concept, often involving whiskey-sodas and books and parallel lounge chairs. It wasn’t ever an ironclad silence, but one peppered with words whenever we wanted. We’re still close friends despite living on opposite sides of the country. It turns out low-decibel socializing is a bond like no other.

I still ask people to parallel play with me and most usually find it to be a strange request at first. New parallel players, anxious to be doing it right, will often ask if a long pause in our conversation or studying side by side counts as parallel play. I usually say, “Sure, we are parallel playing, but don’t ruin it.” In time, most come to find that the intimacy of silence has been missing from their lives. Some of my friends have become such veteran parallel players that they even propose the idea to others.

Socializing in silence grows on one slowly. It doesn’t happen all at once. Start off by inviting someone you trust to parallel play, no pressure. Then pick your venue: the velvety silence of a late-night drive, the gentle percolations of Sunday morning, the canopied stillness of a forest, or if you’re feeling bold, the unnerving hush of a graveyard. If you don’t know what kind of silence is right for you, go outside and walk until the air feels light and still. Then exist, perfectly together and apart, in shared silence.

There Are Few Things Better Than Socializing in Silence