On the Other Side of Social “Awkwardness”

2018 May 23

We’ve all witnessed the “awkward” silence moment in the presence of another. And we know this situation is even more awkward when someone publicly diagnoses what’s happening by saying, “Wow, that was kind of awkward.”  Most people can endure this so-called social awkwardness for only a matter of mere seconds. But what makes interpersonal silence so awkward for most people but not for caregivers who spend a majority of their interactions with loved ones in silence?

Caregivers are open to ways of connecting that don’t require talking.  Sharing space and developing closeness with another person can be accomplished in so many ways. While talk and disclosure can bring people closer together, so can shared presence.

Caregivers know what most others don’t—talk is just as effective at keeping people “distant” as it is in drawing people closer.

If others were able to witness how caregivers create closeness, they would walk away in disbelief.  “I don’t get it, nothing happened? Nothing was said.”  I heard this refrain too many times as a hospice volunteer when others would question the merit of spending time in the company of someone who may not be able to talk or to express themselves verbally. What outsiders believed must have been remarkably awkward—“I don’t get how you can spend an hour with someone you don’t know”—I knew was anything but awkward. Shared presence was comforting. The silence was sacred. And I felt remarkably connected to another without sharing one single word. Sharing the same space as another person without wanting or needing words means you are more willing to be open to a human connection that doesn’t necessitate a detailed examination of someone’s history or background or resume. Silence, with an accompanying willingness and desire to be present, says everything that needs to be said.

Someone who is preoccupied with “awkward” silences fears silence for what it might reveal—about themselves and the person they are near. Silence focuses our attention in ways that no words could ever inspire because it reveals a truth that caregivers already know from their experiences.  It is talking—not silence—that camouflages what we already have in common with one another.  It is talking—not silence—that dupes us into believing that we need to use words to scan for possible similarities.

Caregivers have a remarkably high tolerance for interpersonal silence.  Most people’s instinct is to panic—exit immediately before something happens that might reveal the truths of connection that can be noticed and experienced with anyone. Caregivers know similarity always exists between themselves and another.  It is just waiting to be noticed and appreciated.

Caregivers know that the person in front of them—no matter who they are and how “healthy” they are—is always afraid, hurting, and uncertain too.  No amount of talking takes that human truth away from us, it only temporarily distracts others from noticing—creating an unnatural and unnecessary distance between people. Connection is possible precisely when one lets go of the pressure to feel like the gaps of silence have to be filled with words when in the presence of another.

When you hear someone talk about “awkward” silences, what they really mean is “awkward” presence. Unfortunately, too many people have been trained out of knowing how to be with another person. They might be quite proficient at talking to others—but quite limited when it comes to creating connection.  Most people are surprised when they “find” commonality because they mistakenly believe connection is a scarce resource. Caregivers, on the other hand, expect to find connection, but realize that connection is so rare not because it doesn’t already exist, but because of an unwillingness to allow it to be noticed, appreciated, and fostered using the language of silence.

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