As the weekend inches closer in the closing hours of Friday’s workday, you casually send out a text to a friend, looking to kick the weekend off right by indulging yourself in some form of social inebriation. 

YOU: “Yo… whats’s going on tonight? Got any plans?”

FRIEND: “No too sure yet. I’ll let know you.”

Later, you drive home and kick off your shoes, grab a beer from the fridge, and lounge around in your underwear with the T.V. on. As the evening wears on, thoughts about a shower and a change of clothes begin to invade your mind. You think to yourself that if you’ll be going anywhere, you’d better find out soon so as to leave yourself enough time to preen. You text your friend again.

YOU: “So, what are you up to? Wanna get out and do something?”

(SILENCE)

Recently, you’ve begun seeing a new girl/guy that you met while out with friends. At the recommendation of your friend, the two of you met and seemed to hit it off well. You’ve been out once or twice since the first meeting and have been communicating through text over the past two weeks or so, though lately, your new love interest seems to be busier than usual. Hoping to keep the steam going, you message her/him one night just to make chit chat. 

YOU: “How was your day babe?”

(SILENCE)

Perhaps he/she is busy, or their phone was silenced at the moment. You wait to hear back from them, but by the next day, have received no acknowledgment of your message.

YOU: “Hey, did you get my message? You must be so busy with work this week. My boss is on my back too haha. But listen, message me when you get a chance. I wanted to see if you’d be interested in checking out this museum on Sunday, and then maybe we could do lunch again? Let me know. Laters”

(SILENCE)

After many of these casual types of engagements are met with continued (SILENCE), you might even get bold, honest, and hell, perhaps ask that person to explain themselves.

YOU: “Hey are we still dating or what, because you haven’t responded to any of my messages. Look, if you don’t want to see me anymore, that’s fine. But at least let me know what’s going on!”

In all of my worldly travels, there’s one particular worldview about Americans that seems pervasive across many different cultures: American’s aren’t afraid to express themselves. I’m here to tell you that, based on the alarmingly common phenomena illustrated above, I’m not so sure that American’s are as brave as everyone thinks we are. The greatest leaps in communication technology have allowed us more opportunities than ever to talk to our friends and keep in touch with the people in our lives; it’s also given us more opportunities to ignore them as well. In the days of pen and ink, people didn’t expect convenience or prompt responses—there were legitimate excuses for falling out of touch with people and for time to build up somewhere in the middle. Our culture was different and, therefore, our brains were wired differently too. Yet, now, with all the speedy internet and smartphone devices out there, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which someone couldn’t respond to a message in a somewhat timely manner—its literally requires the push of a button.

During our first few years out of college, and friend of mine and I dabbled in the world of online dating. Though truly it would have been nice to meet a great gal, mostly, it was a great way to get naked with someone new. Later on, the rest of the online dating culture quickly caught on to this, and so, a lot of more “serious” sites started charging. But the free ones were just elaborate pimping sites. Though, for all the skin and sexual debauchery that could be gleaned from a site that let you pick your next sleeping partner, there did exist (at least to some degree) some potential to meet someone cool. A few times, it happened that my friend and I would meet girls that we genuinely thought might turn into good relationships. Our hopes were quickly dashed once we began comparing notes and realizing that the culture of (SILENCE) was extremely prevalent (and effective). It got to a point where he and I would get together and simply laugh at the sudden ending of what we had hoped could turn into a good relationship. Now remember that this (SILENCE) would come on suddenly after we had already been in communication with, and even gone out with the girls. In some cases, I had been out with girls that literally would say “I can’t wait to see you again” and then, immediately, the (SILENCE) would begin. Anyway, we’d end every story with the same line and gesture: shaking our heads and rolling our eyes upward toward the sky, with our hands thrown up on either side of us “…no response…” At this common ending we would laugh and shrug it off, as it was something we had become accustomed to.

Now, people might be reading this and thinking, “Well silence in itself is a message isn’t it?”, or more simply, “It just means they lost interest in you and didn’t want to see you anymore”. My answer to that is: well of course they weren’t interested anymore; of course they didn’t wish to see me any longer. But, that’s not the point here. The point is why can’t we tell one another that that’s the case. Why can’t we say: “listen I had fun, but I’m not really that interested in a relationship right now, sorry”. One time, my friend had experienced the (SILENCEand in a fit of frustration, he messaged the young woman back, demanding that she take responsibility and at least tell him that she wasn’t interested anymore. After about a week, she finally confessed that her ex-boyfriend had come back into her life and that she had gotten back together with him.

To be clear though, this phenomenon of avoiding conflict through (SILENCE) is not only about the dating scene. We do it with our friends too. If we have plans with others and a friend comes asking if we want to hang out, we ignore them. We have serious trouble telling a friend that we’ve made plans with others; that we’re not interested in their suggested activity for that night. No one is saying that we need to tell people off and hurt their feelings in some strange quest to be awkwardly honest. But saying NOTHING at all is equally, if not more, irresponsible. Americans have long been revered for their ability to express themselves openly, to confront conflict directly. I often wonder how it gets so mixed up, that people believe that turning someone down, or explaining their disinterest is somehow going to destroy another person. This use of (SILENCE) as a means to preserve others, while perhaps seemingly good natured, also serves a selfish function. We use (SILENCE) as a means of plausible deniability: my phone was off, my phone died, I didn’t get your message. This is all meant to save face, to keep us from being the bad guy, so that when someone does ask us to take responsibility, we can call them “creepy” or “a stalker”.

This article doesn’t mean to suggest that we must always respond to the messages of others. Sometimes it is the case that we miss  a call or that we let messages slip our minds. But, I do think it’s important that we take responsibility when others ask for answers. I think we all need to be a bit braver and challenge ourselves to withstand fears of turning others down because we imagine that they can’t take it. We should have more faith in others. Indeed, more importantly, I believe that it’s this entire culture of (SILENCE) that creates weak egos in the first place. We don’t get exposed to “No” anymore. Instead we use more indirect tactics and then punish others when they don’t understand our meaning. We should live up to the view that American’s aren’t afraid to express themselves. But mostly, we shouldn’t assume that (SILENCE)is a message; it’s not. (SILENCE) is the absence of a message, and perhaps, a backbone.