Appropriating the Spaciousness of Silence

Appropriating the Spaciousness of Silence

Silence Sign
By freeside510 from USA (Silence) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
I’ve always spent a lot of time alone inside my head, and this quiet alone time is where my creative ideas come from.  While I was an employed project manager the little ideas that popped into my head were genius ideas about workflow, risk management or productivity.  And while I was unhappily unemployed they were about economising, cash flow and tweaking my resume.  And now as a writer, they feel more important because they are moments of silence and clarity when everything suddenly makes sense and I can explain all the mysteries of the universe (except what goes on inside my dog’s head).

Not long ago, I came across an opinion piece about The Cost of Paying Attention by Matthew Crawford in the New York Times (you have to love the internet if only because I can read the New York Times the very same day half way around the world in Melbourne Australia).   In it, he discusses the impact of advertising in our daily lives, particularly the bits that take place in public space, at times where we are a captive audience.  He describes this as “monetize[ing] every bit of private head space by appropriating our collective attention”.

At the time, I thought he was over dramatising the situation a bit, but over the last couple of weeks I have left the house more often than I normally would and with the article in recent memory I noticed the impact on my quiet moments more than I might otherwise have done:

  • my hospital has been upgrading and modernising, and the waiting rooms now have automated check-in machines and television screens
  • the city train stations now have video screens with product advertising in place.  Even when you shut your eyes you can see the ghostly flickering light, and hear the advertising messages.  I found this quite irritating because I have been accustomed to using that quiet space as a sort of transitional space – letting go of the events of the city (or work day).  This was really important after a bad day – letting that anger and aggression dissipate and not taking it home with me.
  • my connecting bus had the radio on.  I think this may have been driver preference rather than policy, but I found myself vacantly humming along rather than thinking about what needs to happen when I get home.
  • I have been accustomed to in-store music, but during my last visit, I suddenly realised it wasn’t music it was advertising.  Not just the voiceover offers, but even the “songs” were long-play versions of advertising jingles.  Sort of mocked up as a radio show where a couple of people chat about, say, cleaning products before an “ad” comes on for an in-store promotion and then actual advertising I’ve heard on the actual radio.
  • and on another day when I filled up the car with petrol I was astounded to find that the pumps have little tv screens in them showing advertising.  And you can’t turn your back on them for peace because you can still hear them and see the vision in the next bank of machines.  And even worse, I still can’t swipe my credit card to pay for the fuel, I still have to go over the little snack kiosk that masquerades as a payment counter.

Perhaps you think I’m a little hick country girl, and you smile indulgently about me, but I found this quite shocking.  Even though I live in an outer city suburb I am a kinda little hick country girl – my home “town” started its life in 1850s as a pastoral/timber felling outpost, grew into a tourist town and was eventually overtaken by the City.  It has lost a lot of its small-town flavour (which attracted us to the area), but conversations between “strangers” are still more likely than in the big smoke (because we see each other’s faces all the time).  So the thing that really struck me about the advertising, was that it brought a strange zombie-like weirdness with it:

  • waiting patients were less agitated about the long wait, though having said that there was a dearth of people to complain to
  • city train stations used to be a hive of conversational noise and activity where you could hear university students debating whatever theory they had been exposed to that day, but with the “tv” on, they passively watched the display and didn’t interact with each other
  • the local bus is usually full of gossipy old ladies – I love it, but with the radio on, they didn’t even look at each other let alone talk
  • I had gone to the store to just quickly pick up a couple of things, but I found I had “lost” time while I was there.  And I found that I had collected things in my basket that I didn’t want.
  • the pump advertising just made me REALLY angry, but I noticed other slack-jawed patrons watching.  The man in the payment queue in front of me spent a lot of (my valuable) time trying to find an advertised product which it turned out was NOT even stocked in the kiosk…

After time spent in an airport, Crawford theorises that silence has become a luxury good.  The only way you can get your attention back is to pay for the absence of visual and auditory advertising.  I think he’s probably right, though aside from on-line shopping, not leaving the house and hiring a minion to do the outside stuff, it’s hard to know how we can do that.

But given the mindlessness of it, I also wonder what it is doing to our interpersonal relationships as well.  Many people don’t talk at home – they just go their separate ways and watch their separate shows and don’t interact with each other of an evening at all.  Where are the small quiet moments where we develop new relationships and strengthen old ones?  When do people share their thoughts and opinions, help each other with their problems or offer their love and support?


So, what are your thoughts on silence?  Do you crave it or run from it?  Do you need the quiet to think, or do you need the noise and movement to kick start your thinking and communication?


  1. JoJenna Rusk says:

    Great blog Alex. I love silence, well the silence of a ticking clock that is.. ha ha. Everything you said is so spot on. I love my apartment more now that I have gotten rid of my TV, but have to watch that the computer doesn’t take over. We are becoming zombies. Even people and their answering machines are becoming ways to push people away from interacting and yes it does feel zombie like. What are the solutions though, not sure. But good to ponder on. 🙂

    • Alexandria says:

      Thanks for your thoughts JoJenna.

      In the days before answering machines my father would only answer the phone if he felt he had the time to deal with a call properly – absolutely never at dinner time. His feeling was that people would call back if it was important and he was right about that. I follow in his footsteps, but I use an answering machine. It very rarely takes a message because it only takes about six call centre calls a day and they don’t leave messages. I do find it really annoying when it rings because it interrupts my train of thought as much as if I actually answered the phone. I really must get one that is silent!

  2. CND says:

    I can’t stand that our privacy (especially mental privacy) is stolen from us by the bombardment of BUY BUY BUY messages any and everyplace you cast your eyes (or ears)! Makes me nuts! No–it makes me mad. My husband and I make a point NOT to buy products or services of the most annoying advertisers.

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