Earlier this winter, hoarsened by a winter cold, I lost my voice as Christmas approached. The timing seemed especially bad, since December is probably the chattiest month of the year. I wondered how I would navigate all the holiday parties and family gatherings where I felt obligated to talk.
But the rest of the world didn't seem to greatly miss what I had to say. It’s a humbling lesson I’m trying to remember in a culture that compels us to utter opinions large and small, whether anyone is really interested.
As a journalist, I’ve long belonged to what’s been derisively called the chattering classes, that community of commentators for whom self-absorption is an occupational hazard. Give someone a media megaphone each day, and the tendency to overshare can sometimes get the best of any ink-stained wretch. But in our new era of social media, that temptation now extends to anyone who goes online.
The internet has made it easy for all of us to unburden ourselves of any half-baked thought, a social norm that shapes our verbal habits, too. We’re pretty much all chatterboxes these days, and it’s a wonder, given this new governing reality of our national life, that more of us aren’t hoarse all the time.
My mandatory silence lasted only a few days, but it revealed a lot. I was forced to give my wife the last word, which didn't seem, to her at least, an occasion for grief. Oddly enough, I also came to see my quietude as liberating. When you can no longer spend so much energy prevailing in a disagreement, you begin to see, if only temporarily, how meaningless it is to insist on claiming the debate trophy in every round.
Of course, I thought about the possible benefits of such an insight to our elected leaders, so zealous to talk every point of contention into the ground. An epidemic of hoarseness in the halls of power, it occurred to me during my brief time on the rhetorical sidelines, might be the most effective political reform of all.
Silence at social gatherings wasn’t quite the obstacle I feared, either. For the most part, I’d offer a few raspy words of greeting and an occasional question, nodding attentively as others held the floor. I was pleased to rediscover what Dale Carnegie suggested many decades ago — namely, that if you simply listen to someone, they will often find you charming and wise.
There’s a reason, I understood last month, why “Silent Night” is such a celebrated Christmas carol. It affirms the basic truth that spiritual fulfillment is usually grounded in quiet, too. It allows you to hear others, but also, in a new way, to hear yourself.
All of which led to a New Year’s resolution. In 2019, I’m trying to be more willing to stay quiet because I choose to, not merely because I have to.