What is it about quiet places that make you so on-edge? Is it the radio silence passing through four empty walls, or worse, empty conversation? In John Krasinski’s new thriller, A Quiet Place, sound is purposely sparse to enhance fear in the audience, but also to keep his character's loved ones alive. The film follows the Abbott family through a months-long invasion of blind monsters that will attack the second they hear even the slightest peep, so background music, or any noise, for that matter, is carefully placed throughout the scenes. It makes you wonder why silence is so uncomfortable for people, in both movies and in real life.
Think about it: Who doesn’t cringe at awkward pauses when maneuvering through a chat with a stranger, or feel the hairs on the back of their neck shoot up in a dark, silent room? Quiet has the power to make you nervous and, according to communications lecturer, Bruce Fell, it’s actually a legitimate fear.
In a December 2012 article Fell wrote for The Conversation, the Charles Sturt University lecturer explained that, over the course of a six-year period, he observed the behavior of his 580 undergraduate students and came to the conclusion that “struggle with silence is a learnt behavior,” as all of the students, except for one, grew up in households where the TV, or some other kind of background noise, was constantly playing.
A combination of constant TV, music, and these days, the sounds of social media alerts, have caused people to crave noise and avoid silence.
It’s somewhat refreshing to know this is one issue you can’t totally blame on social media, though it’s definitely not helping. According to experts who spoke to the sound insulation company, Acoustical Surfaces, the fear of silence, or “sedatephobia,” is becoming more and more common, causing people to feel uneasy in quiet places or situations (think the library and awkward pauses in conversation). Interestingly enough, leading hypnotherapist, Dominic Knight, told the company that the phobia has only surfaced within the last 50 years or so, which could suggest we live in a "much noisier world" than, say, the environment our parents and grandparents grew up in.
From what I understand, the fear of silence depends on circumstances, like how you were raised as a child. For example, growing up, oftentimes it was just me and my mom in the house. There would be days when she’d clean and do chores with soap operas playing in the background, or a Celine Dion track on repeat, but there were also plenty of afternoons when she’d shut off all electronics and focus on the task at hand, with little to no background noise to distract her. This might be why I, personally, don't suffer from a fear of silence. In fact, I’m very comfortable with it.
For others, though, like Fell’s students, it’s hard to even walk from one place to another without having some sort of music in their ears, or a podcast talking at them. According to Business Insider, this is because parents and grandparents who constantly left the TV on, even when no one was watching, taught children to exist in these artificial worlds. Of course, though, there's no way of pinpointing just one thing to explain why so many of us prefer to go about our days with a constant sense of background noise.
But still, why is silence so unbelievably uncomfortable for some people?
There’s no one root cause of a fear of silence, according to doctor of psychology and licensed clinical social worker, Dr. Danielle Forshee, LLC. However, she tells me in an interview with Elite Daily, "silence generally stimulates us to be able to notice our automatic thoughts,” aka uncontrollable, and often-uncomfortable thoughts that occur when triggered by something else. Because these thoughts often cause stressful emotions to ensue, she says, "most prefer to not sit and notice their thoughts, and [sound] provides that relief.”
Usually, when you're afraid of something, it's not the thing itself that's so scary. For instance, if you're uneasy in a dark room, it's not the dim lighting that freaks you out; it's the fact that you can't be absolutely certain you know what's lurking in the shadows. In terms of silence, it's not the quiet that makes you feel on-edge; it's the fact that there's nothing to distract you from your own thoughts — thoughts you might not want to recognize just yet, as Dr. Forshee points out.
As for the awkward silence that lulls between conversations, Dr. Forshee says the reason why these sorts of pauses are so wildly uncomfortable is because quiet presents a lack of structure or direction.
"Unstructured moments make people vulnerable to parts of their personalities coming out that they typically try to keep under wraps," she tells Elite Daily, "such as stuttering, overcompensating with humor, saying dirty jokes, etc."
But don't sweat it when this happens. When one person stops talking, it's most likely, Forshee says, that both parties are searching for a way to continue on with the engagement.
Silence can definitely be daunting, but there are ways to teach yourself to be a little more comfortable with the quiet. Dr. Forshee says the best way to overcome the fear is to face it head-on by practicing mindfulness. In other words, shut off the TV, mute the music, and log out of social media for a miniature hiatus throughout the day. Becoming more comfortable with your personal thoughts, she says, should make the quiet more manageable.
As for conversational pauses, simply smile and nod until something comes to mind. You're both going through the same awkward moment, so that alone should make it all a little less painful.