Silence can be powerful, strong and authoritative. It can communicate more than a thousand words. Silence can demonstrate that you are not to be messed with. Silence can give you time to reflect. It can be a simple pause in a conversation that has not concluded. Ultimately, silence is the only way to halt a discussion you do not want to have.
In our culture we tend to demonize silence as a way of being uncooperative. We believe that it is rude to be unresponsive. Some people cannot ignore a ringing phone or knock at the door, even though these attempts to reach them are uninvited. Good manners dictate that we answer emails within 24 hours. We accuse others of screening our calls as if it is our right to connect with someone at the time of our choosing. We don’t acknowledge that a ringing bell, a beep, a knock – are all interruptions. I’ve seen this compulsion to respond taken to ridiculous lengths around texting in particular.
Women seem to have little ability to simply ignore a text. It doesn’t matter whether they’re interested or not. They can turn a guy down repeatedly and if he texts again, they will still answer. They check their phones constantly. It feels wrong to cut the cord of communication. It makes them feel guilty.
Recently I was meeting some young friends for dinner, when Cecilia arrived late and announced she needed our help. Her ex Ryan had been texting recently, and she admitted that she wasn’t over him. It had been an issue in her last relationship, and now she was back on the market. He suggested they meet up to “figure things out.” The conversation had been going on for a couple of months.
Ryan didn’t have Facebook, but thinking about a couple of clues he’d inadvertently dropped, she sleuthed her way to the proof that Ryan was in a relationship and trying to cheat with her. Cecilia was furious and wanted to call him out but I advised her to hold back. She had nothing to gain and would feel worse after making drama, only to have him say “Sorry, not sorry.” I encouraged her to move on.
Shortly before dinner Ryan texted, claiming that the thought of her had “surfaced” when he heard a particular song. His text was friendly and noncommittal. She wanted us to help her compose the best calling out response ever. I felt that her case was weak. I guessed that he would use plausible deniability and accuse her of acting psycho. Her rant would have no effect on his behavior or feelings.
Cecilia had one bullet, so she would have to shoot at exactly the right moment to hit her mark. She couldn’t turn this cad into a dad, but she could go out on her own terms. That would only work if he escalated his attempts and tried to get her back again.
I recommended a strategy of silence. No response. Five fresh young faces stared at me in disbelief.
“Don’t answer? But this is her only chance!”
“She may never hear from him again – it’s now or never!”
And Cecilia very strongly wanted to say her piece. “Ha! Caught you being a douche!”
I pointed out that if he never texted again, it would be clear he had so little invested nothing she could say would matter. If she ignored him completely, he might try again. She agreed to delay responding until the next day at least. This sacrifice felt huge – neither she nor the other girls could stand the idea of not responding. Cries of “Ugh!” went round the table.
Before we’d left the restaurant, he texted again.
“What’s your problem?”
Note the accusatory tone, the implication something is wrong with her for not jumping to attention! For all he knew, she might be sick, or asleep, or at a funeral! Two hours earlier he had texted a message that required no response. Yet he felt cheated by her silence.
She asked me what she should do. I said, “Not yet. Do not respond. He’ll try again and that’s when you take your shot.” She had to catch him in the act of cheating. I urged her to remain calm and reasonable, or nothing she said would register.
Sure enough, Ryan called about an hour later, belligerently demanding to know what kind of game she was playing. He declared that they were “involved.” She told him very matter of factly that she no longer wished to hear from him or see him. When he demanded to know why, she said that she had no room in her life for anyone who did not treat her with honesty and respect. He denied ever having been disrespectful or dishonest.
Nicely done. Cool, calm and collected. Cecilia ended the conversation with Ryan still trying to talk his way out of trouble, obviously scared that she would tell his girlfriend.
Cecilia did a little happy dance and actually giggled. She felt empowered and in control. Most importantly, she felt free of Ryan for the first time since the breakup. I’d like to say this happened between two kids, but Cecilia is 27 and Ryan is 32. Ugh.
Of course, I do not endorse giving your partner the “silent treatment” when you’re upset. Silence should not be used to manipulate others and make them anxious – except in negotiations, where it is often a successful strategy.
Be judicious in your speech. The more you speak the less others tend to listen.
Never feel obligated to engage in communication with someone you don’t have a relationship with. Their text or call is an invitation to connect – one that you have every right to ignore or decline.
If you do have something to say, the timing and manner in which you speak can make all the difference.
Silence is an important tool in the practice of filtering out men who are not real relationship prospects. Because they tend to be the most persistent and obnoxious guys, choosing not to respond is often the only effective way to get rid of them. On your terms.