science of us

Most Days I Don’t Speak at All

Photo: Aleksandar Nakic/Getty Images

Does anyone else not talk that much anymore? I put the question on Twitter the other day after realizing that due to Slack, email, texting, Instagram, and living alone, I don’t really have a reason to regularly use my voice these days. It’s mostly been fine, although I sometimes feel lonely, and I miss making good jokes with people. And sometimes when I talk I think it sounds high and strained, which I hate. (Maybe I could take a cue from Elizabeth Holmes.)

I heard from several people in similarly silent situations, all of whom seemed to be mostly fine with not talking, although some also mentioned a sort of sneaking, uneasy feeling that it might be kind of weird, or slightly wrong, to be so speechless — or that it wasn’t something that should go on indefinitely.

“I’ll admit to some pangs of loneliness and shame, like that I’m doing something wrong or failing as a person,” one of the women I spoke with told me (she works at home and lives alone). “But my silence is comfortable and comforting at this point. Also, I mumble less than I did before, when the opportunity arises.”

“It’s been an interesting way to get to know myself,” another woman, who lives alone and doesn’t speak at work, said (she told me that she’d spoken 19 words that day). “At the end of a day of near silence, I’ve noticed that my anxiety levels are really low. My voice is less warmed up, in general, but I’m genuinely more happy to talk to people when I do. And I feel like I listen with more care.”

Another woman said that while communicating mostly via text allows her to be a better and more empathetic listener, she’s also less motivated to leave her comfort zone: “Physically, I feel less presentable to the world — and I’m also afraid I’m losing my tone for sarcasm.”

What does it mean to talk so much less? Is there something it’s doing mentally? Physically? Is it bad, is it good? It sort of feels like taking an accidental meditation retreat, except without the purposeful serenity or obvious breakthroughs. And maybe this is a little off-topic, but what about the price of laughing so much less? (Is it making my face droop?) Is this all the beginning of the end? Or did the end begin long ago??

“Generally we think that talking less is a good thing, for the voice,” said otolaryngologist Aaron M. Johnson of NYU Langone’s Voice Center. (In his practice, he works mostly with people who’ve over-used their voices.) In situations of extreme disuse, however, he said, a voice might become not atrophied, but something more like “detrained.” He compared this to what happens when someone who’s been sick in bed for a few days finally tries to get up: “You haven’t lost the ability to walk,” he said, “but the muscles are a little weaker. And so it might take a few days to get the strength back again.”

One of the women I spoke with said that while she mostly liked her silence, she occasionally worried about her decreased vocal output having “some lasting physical or psychological impact.” But on a physical level, at least, there’s nothing to worry about: Even after prolonged silence, Johnson explained, the voice never totally goes away. The muscles that control the voice also control breathing and swallowing, and so even if you took a permanent vow of silence, Johnson said, “you presumably would continue to swallow and breathe.”

The voice is produced in the larynx, a muscular, box-like organ in the throat. Inside the larynx are two vocal folds (formerly known as the vocal cords), which are taut, sort of alien-looking, whitish flaps made of tissue and supported by muscle. Sound is made when air from the lungs vibrates these folds. From there, the sound moves up and resonates through the vocal chamber (in the throat and mouth) while being shaped by the various tiny muscles involved in speech and articulation, sort of like what happens in a musical instrument. (The quality of a person’s voice is largely determined by the shape of their throat, which is why siblings often have similar-sounding voices, for instance.)

Our voices naturally weaken as we age, Johnson explained, because the muscles in our throat and face are no different from all the other muscles in our body that naturally weaken and atrophy. This is partly why older people’s voices can sometimes sound breathier and weaker than they once did. Arguably, he said, prolonged periods of silence could mimic something like this natural weakening. I asked him if there was there a minimum number of words people should speak a day, to keep the voice fit, similar to how the government recommends 2.5 hours of exercise a week for the rest of the body. “I wish I could tell you,” he said. I jokingly floated the idea that 1,000 words might be a rough anchor (our half-hour conversation consisted of 3,436 words), and he laughed and said that there was just no clear answer. (He had a great voice, by the way — resonant, confident, and gentle, with an easy laugh. The word “mahogany” comes to mind, although maybe that is too much.)

I read somewhere that women speak 20,000 words a day while men speak only 7,000, but that seems to be a folk myth without scientific merit. More women do report having vocal problems, Johnson told me, although he said that attributing this to talking too much would be “glib and unfounded” (and that new research may refute it, anyway). Differences in word output, he said, were more likely attributable to personality differences than to differences of sex or gender. “Introvert, extrovert — I think that’s probably more relevant.”

I spoke (emailed) with a retired man in his 60s who said he spent most of the day alone. “I play the piano, paint, take long walks, and read,” he said. “Compared to the way that I used to live, I feel more isolated in a certain way. Sometimes it’s very pleasant and sometimes not.” I asked him if he found talking with people now better or awkward, when it does happen. “Both,” he said. “For my old friends in the business world, I find it more awkward. But on the other hand, I enjoy listening much more, which has had many positive developments in virtually all of my relationships.”

“It’s tough sometimes,” another woman told me. “I find myself saying things out loud at home that I wouldn’t normally if someone else was around. And I think I subconsciously crave some kind of interaction. When I do spend time with others, I’ve noticed that I have, like, word vomit.”

Another woman mentioned something similar: “I don’t have to use my voice or face to communicate anymore,” she told me, “so I sometimes forget that I need to control it when I actually do. I’m much more aware of my voice, face, hands, and eye contact, in an unnatural way.”

When I think of the people I love, it’s their voices more than their bodies that seem intrinsic to the idea of their core “selves.” If the eyes are windows to the soul, maybe the voice is its song or soundtrack. Maybe this is the weirdest part about talking less — a sort of pervasive soullessness. That might be an exaggeration, but the voice does sometimes feel like a rope connecting subconsciousness to reality.

“Our voice is really reflective of our personality and our psychological state,” Johnson said. Just by hearing a few words from a close friend on the phone, for instance, he went on, you can tell what kind of mood they’re in — “If they’re upset, if they’re happy,” etc. And the effects go far beyond that, too.

I was having a sort of difficult back-and-forth with an editor at work last week, and eventually she said she would just come over and “blab at me” about it. At first I was nervous (oh no, it’s so bad she needs to couch it in friendly facial expressions), but in the end it was clarifying, relieving, and energizing, and it’s crazy how easy it is to forget the amount of information that’s expressed in even just a snippet of human speech. Text seems like it’s so much more precise, and maybe in some ways it is, but it can also strip communication of nuance and humanness. “There is no way to write naturally,” media scholar Walter Ong wrote in his book Orality and Literacy, which I came across in a recent essay in Real Life magazine. Now you tell me!

Johnson said that probably the most common side effect of voice disuse was not the voice becoming strained and high (which is what I thought was happening) but a self-perpetuating cycle of awkwardness. “Overthinking speech can cause us to stumble, which causes us to worry more about it, and think more about it, and so on.” He also said that if getting rusty with talking is a personal concern (“but I don’t think it should be”), people could make more of an effort to talk to themselves — or to their pets, or to their plants.

Toward the end of our conversation, I asked Johnson if not talking and not laughing were possibly causing my face to droop prematurely, as I have begun to suspect. “That seems like a bit of a stretch,” he said. “I would think you’re probably still reacting to, you know, funny Slack messages. I don’t think you’re completely passive in your face throughout the day.”

True, although I still miss having conversations and making dumb jokes. Maybe I will order a husband from Comedy Central.

Most Days I Don’t Speak at All