When Loren and I were first married, one of our wedding presents was an egg timer. It came with instructions. No, not the kind that said ‘Turn over until empty.’ These instructions were how to use the egg timer to avoid turning a tense discussion into a yell-a-thon that ends in door-slamming. Basically, after the first person says their piece, the egg timer was to be set going for a two-minute silence before the other person could respond. That was to be repeated until both parties agreed that the conversation had ended.
There is a lot of wisdom in letting silence occur before responding. First, we tend to react more quickly to tone of voice than to the words that are used. Silence allows the memory of tone to fade so the words sink also. Second, it makes sense that the brain needs time to register what it has heard. Just like the brain needs a few minutes to register that the stomach is full. (Some people are left-ear dominant, which means they will need more time than others to decipher what they have heard.) This is when silence is more than golden, it actually gives dividends. It is also, sadly, a lost art in American society where being the first one to sound off the correct answer is so readily rewarded in schools and churches. Spelling bees, Math bees, Bible Bowl, – to name but a few – have instilled in us the need to hit the buzzer and blurt out our thoughts as quickly as possible. The games in themselves are not at fault, but our seeming inability to recognize that we have let that behavior sink into our daily conversational style.
Interrupting a person to finish their sentences or asking another question before the first is even answered is prevalent in America (though especially bad in New Jersey / New York). I found myself more than once completely frustrated by such conversations. The non-verbal message it sent me was, “I don’t really want to be talking with you, but I’ll pretend I do.” (Honestly, if you don’t want to talk to me, then don’t.) The sad truth is that I know I was guilty of the same thing as a young adult. When I’m not paying attention, I can easily fall into that behavior again. How I wish we could be like the Ents in Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings where Treebeard says, “It takes a very long time to say anything in Entish. So we don’t say anything unless it is worth taking a long time to say.”
So perhaps it would be good for us to show each other some mercy by staying quiet until a person is completely finished talking, and then give a little silence before answering. Maybe not two full minutes, but if I pull out an egg timer during our next conversation, you will know I’m getting frustrated! And yes, you are welcome to pull an egg timer on me too.