It is not like one day I decided to become a Tibetan monk. The monastic lifestyle never appealed to me. I am too cranky.
My self-imposed quietness just happened.
I had thrived in cacophony. I grew up in an Italian-American home, where speaking (shouting) was the norm and communication was both verbal and physical. Fluid hand movements punctuated emotions.
In the early part of my career, I enjoyed working in newsrooms where loud, bawdy banter was the currency and I was in the middle of the exchange. My preference had been after-hour bars when ear-splitting music necessitated that I raise my decibel level to be heard.
Silence, in fact, always frightened me. As an only child, my loneliness was punctuated with an exclamation mark if I was not constantly chattering to my family, (imaginary and real) friends, and dolls.
I only fell asleep with a suitable amount of background noise, often talking heads on television, which was comfortable, in so much that it was familiar. If I was too tired to do the talking, at least I could hear others’ words. I felt whole.
I realized that talking made me feel authentic. Talking was a way to justify or defend my actions. I could talk myself out of any sticky situation at work or in a relationship. I was the sounding board and would dispense advice with confidence and without brevity.
Then one day I gave myself permission to shut up.
There was a man in my life who directed his barbs like weapons. Verbally abusive, he used words to castigate. I had not been talking to him. I had been spinning my words to deflect the barbs. The more I talked, the more he hated me.
When I stopped talking, I gained control. I heard the insults because I was not busy trying to formulate a response.
I heard the shallowness in the daily conversations I was having with my best friend and the waste of time that took me away from my worthy solitary passions, such as reading, biking and spending time with my very non-verbal dogs. The rehashing in the “he said, she said” fashion that had become so addicting gradually lost its appeal.
I always hated that the image of Hello Kitty, the whimsical little cartoon cat with wide-opened eyes and no mouth. I thought it symbolized that girls should be seen and not heard. That was the worst possible role model, a pretty little creature with no voice.
Had I become Hello Kitty?
No. But I have stopped trying to fill awkward silences, boosting the egos of others, and otherwise talking for the sake of talking to reassure myself I matter. I have given up talking as a people-pleaser, knee-jerk response to life.
Like everything else, changing a lifelong habit is not sudden. People in my circle did remark on more than one occasion, “You seem quiet lately,” and then followed up with, “Is everything all right?”
I have noticed that being the listener and not the leader in conversations forces other people to take the lead, like passing a baton in a relay race. Some can run with it and others just opt out because it makes them uncomfortable.
The old me would have tried to ease their discomfort by talking, of course, most probably by making a self-deprecating remark to make them laugh.
But the new Hello Kitty me now just cocks her head, blinks her eyes and listens. That cute cat was much smarter than I thought.