When I went for my interview to apply for a place on a university psychotherapy programme, I was sweating. Nervousness, menopause or the smelly tweed coat I was wearing in an attempt to look bookish, either way, I sweated a lot and I babbled a lot. I can't remember anything I said but I know I just filled the space with a stream of my usual set pieces about self-actualisation and identity and other words that have been leached of meaning through over-use.
The two lecturers who interviewed me were, like TV shrinks, warm and twinkly, with a lot of professional nodding even at my most inane comments ("It's all part of my journey." Ugh.) But still, given they are essentially shrinks to shrinks, also shrewd. One of them asked me, when she could get a word in edgeways that is: "How are you possibly hoping to be a therapist when you talk so much?" (But she put it more tactfully).
I'm trying to learn not to be so defensive so I laughed and fanned my beetroot face with my timetable and explained I talk a lot when I'm nervous and that I'm aware I have a challenge with talking too much and I'm working on it, really I am, I'm not always like this, yadda yadda, more talking. (I didn't mime zipping my lips and throwing away the key did I? Hope not. Shudder.)
But I really meant it about trying to go schtum. Because in a moment of history which celebrates speaking up, stating your truth, joining the Whisper Network, calling people out and many other kinds of self-righteous shoutiness, I seem to be heading in the opposite direction. I am thinking wistfully about the beauty and power of silence.
There is a danger in thinking that you have to tell everyone your view on everything. Sometimes it's more eloquent to know when to shut up.
Gentleman's outfitter Paul Smith has on its shop counter a pile of white business cards with only two words printed on them. "Stop Talking". Customers are invited to take a stack and silently hand them out. It's an inspired idea. (Some potential recipients: Bob Jones, Logan Paul, Donald Trump.)
But regardless of the quality of the babble, decibel-wise, there is simply too much noise.
I used to struggle going to pick up my daughter from the local primary school because it was so loud with hordes of children thundering through the hallways. (Modern Learning Environments: ghastly). A highly sensitive child, she would often be overwhelmed. How are you supposed to learn with your hands over your ears?
Daisy Gumin of introvert community The Quiet Revolution confirms that for highly sensitive children (HSC) school can be excruciatingly overstimulating. She says HSC are deeply affected by their surroundings and living in a culture that can be relentlessly aggressive. Gumin's other advice to parents of HSCs is also about silence: Just listen.
(Our kids now go to an amazing progressive school called Mindalive, which has about 50 students in total, a gentle atmosphere with giggles and philosophy rather than elephant stampedes. I wish I could have gone there.)
There is science to back up my disquiet. Turns out silence is much more important to our brains than we think. Studies have concluded that children exposed to households or classrooms near airplane flight paths, railways or highways have lower reading scores and are slower in their development of cognitive and language skills. Other studies on mice show silence can quite literally grow your brain. Scientists discovered mice exposed to two hours silence per day developed new cells in the area of the brain associated with memory, emotion and learning. Scientists tell us when you are not distracted by noise or goal-orientated tasks, there appears to be a quiet time that allows you to process experience, and to be imaginative. Despite being told I would find meditation "challenging" by a therapist, I now manage to practice it daily. Silence soothes stress.
But it may be getting harder for us to turn down the volume because we are reading less and watching more videos. The New York Times this week reported we are now in the "post-text future" . The thing you're doing now, reading prose on a screen or page, is going out of fashion, while we are listening to more audio and watching more video. Last year YouTube reported that people watched a billion hours on its service very day, and on average, young Americans spent two hours a day watching video online.
And in a culture which prizes team-sports and groups we also need solitude. One of my heroes Donald Winnicott in his 1958 paper "The Capacity to be Alone" says silence is more than merely the absence of speech. To be silent in someone else's presence is a mark of trust. "To be alone and silent with someone else is to take them seriously as an independent person."
You must have heard "This is a conversation we need to have" many times lately, about problematic topics such as sexual harassment or inequality. But maybe it is equally true that there is a silence we need to observe and respect. "All profound things and emotions of things are preceded and attended by silence." (Herman Melville). I'm shutting up now. Well, at least till next week.