Saturday, March 27, 2021

the terrible pressure of silence

This happens quite often when I get in a cab:  I greet the driver and tell him where I want to go; the driver grunts affirmatively or confirms the destination by repeating it back to me, and we're off.  If the driver isn't garrulous (as an introvert, I'm never garrulous with strangers; it's up to my interlocutor to initiate conversation if s/he wants to), when we'll ride along in silence... until the cabbie can't take it any longer, and he turns on the radio or his in-car TV, just to fill the air with human voices.

Koreans are garrulous, gregarious, hive-minded people.  In most situations (there are, of course, exceptions), they don't like being alone with their thoughts.  Silence quickly becomes oppressive, as if some inner voice were yelling, "Say something!"  In the cabbie's situation, he might want to talk, but he's already judged me to be Korean-incompetent because I'm a foreigner.  So as the pressure in him builds to fill the silence, his only recourse is to fill the cab with the sounds of a TV or radio.  I find that a bit sad, really:  what's wrong with being alone with your thoughts?  Is your mind that much of a hell?  And on a pragmatic level:  what's wrong with not being distracted by ambient noise while you're driving?  Isn't that safer?

Koreans aren't unique in feeling pressured by silence.  Americans—even if they're not quite as hive-minded—can be a chatty, gabby people, too, and many Yanks will feel the silence drag on until they, like Koreans, are just bursting to talk.  This is mostly true of extroverts; it's hard to find an introvert who can't bear the weight of a long silence.*

Maybe there's some evolutionary reason for the oppression of silence.  In classic movies, there used to be the now-parodied line "It's quiet... too quiet."  Maybe we primates associate a long quiet with the feeling that a nearby predator is about to launch an attack.  If so, then silence is a sinister thing, a cloud hiding monsters and demons, and the only way to beat the cloud back is by making a joyful noise.  And maybe we introverts are the freaks who were born with bad wiring:  we treasure the silence; we respect it and revel in it because we find that our fellow primates' hooting and hollering is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.


*And there are, to be fair, plenty of Koreans who, living a crowded urban existence, actually crave silence.  My buddy JW seems to show that tendency when he's out walking with me.  He disdains the crowds alongside the Han River almost as much as I do, and it's a relief to him whenever we find ourselves on a stretch of the Four Rivers path that's nearly devoid of people.  Many Koreans are outwardly gregarious but privately craving silence and open spaces.  Not all Koreans are wired to enjoy a hive-mind existence.

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