The Power of Silence in Friendships

Friends Relaxing

My friend Jean likes to tell a story about her grandfather in North Carolina. He spent his days of retirement on the porch with his next-door neighbor, staring out at the Blue Ridge Mountains and sitting together in perfect silence. Here is the punch line: in the evenings when Jean went to call him in for dinner, he would nod a silent goodbye to his neighbor and murmur to himself, “That man is the best conversationalist I’ve ever met.”

In friendship, we have silence as well as sound. I, for one, find the silence to be a much greater challenge.

In Gift from the Sea, a gorgeous book about finding stillness in the midst of whirling daily life, Anne Morrow Lindbergh writes: “When I meet my friends in those cubby-holed hours, time is so precious we feel we must cram every available instant with conversation.”

One of the reasons I love living with people is precisely for the silence: you can both fall back into the wallpaper of your days, nestled into the restfulness of the other’s presence. You can afford to be alone together. The busier my life feels, the more I find myself gravitating toward activities that allow for being quiet: jigsaw puzzles with my mom; movie-watching with siblings; hikes with my husband.

As for Jean, we have a ritual of our own that we call “Laundry Night.”

On Laundry Night, I go over to her house with a book and my dog Goblin. We eat a chatty dinner with a glass or two of red wine, and then we go silent. Jean does her laundry and sews ribbons onto hats. I settle onto Jean’s purple sofa with Goblin and my book. For hours we say nothing. Returning to words at the end of the night is as refreshing as gulping air after being underwater. Our conversations shimmer. We feel bonded and sisterly.

Perhaps it is the silence in friendship that indicates true intimacy. Of the hundreds of friends who have touched my life, I have shared silence with only a startling few.

In my experience it is always conversation that paves the bond between friends, yet I believe we are connected to each other in ways much deeper than words. I think we aren’t meant to talk as much as we do. Perhaps the reason so much of the general population loves petting dogs and holding babies is because of this potential to connect to other beings wordlessly.

Jean and I are both talkers. Big talkers. And yet we both identify as introverts. In order to make space for all the words we crave, we both need solitude, space around the edges of friendship. And guarding our solitude together is one of the most intimate things I have ever shared with a friend.

— Elisabeth Sharp McKetta

[photo by  Ken Kochey for Real Simple]