Silence is Gilded, Not Golden

By Maddie Elias

“Stranger! If you, passing, meet me, and desire to speak to me, why should you not speak to me? And why should I not speak to you?” –Walt Whitman

I walk down the halls, in and out of classrooms, through the courtyard by the Keyser buildings. My fellow students are everywhere, people whom I more or less know, or don’t know at all. As we pass each other, the reactions are mixed. To friends, I offer a cheery smile and greeting, and often engage them in conversation. With friendly acquaintances, I limit myself to a smile and a polite hello.

With anyone outside those categories, however, it’s a completely different situation. In some cases, there will be an awkward exchange of forced smiles.

Most of the time, though, we’ll move past each other without a glance, almost as if we’re passing an empty space. After all, we don’t know each other; why should we make the effort to engage with each other?

Walking around a city, or even a smaller town, I can understand how being that way would be reasonable for the sake of safety. But in a school—especially one such as Tam—that reasoning stands on thin ice at best.

So you have your group of friends, friends you can count on. It’s a lucky thing to have friends, but why should it stop you from talking to people you don’t know?

True, it’s unfamiliar territory to talk to a new person, even briefly. You feel comfortable with your established friends, whereas talking to someone unfamiliar feels risky.

The concept might also seem challenging given its circumstances. The people you have in mind are often people who you’ve known for years. That is, you know them, but you don’t know about them. They may not be strangers in the technical use of the word, but for all social purposes the term fits.

At the beginning of this year, I ran into one of those vaguely known people. He and I had gone to school together since elementary school, yet in all that time I hardly knew more about him than his name. When I first ran into him, the only thing that happened was a hello and a brief confirmation of each other’s identities. From there it grew into greeting each other whenever we saw each other, and chatting as we walked in the same direction. Those chats grew into in-depth conversations that we could keep up for hours at a time. We had so much in common, it was astounding that we hadn’t connected sooner in our lives. I know I hadn’t bothered to attempt it in the past, although I wish I had. I didn’t know him, and I was afraid to take on the challenge of changing that; so I kept quiet.

It was from there that I started to see the value in talking to less familiar people. I started greeting my closer friends with more enthusiasm, as well as started to acknowledge my acquaintances more often. Nowadays I’ll greet as many people as I can, including strangers and people who I only know by name. The responses I get from the “named people,” so to speak, have become gradually friendlier over time. Predictably, though, when I greet strangers I’ll receive an awkward hello at the most; in a few cases I’ve been ignored completely.

It’s restrictive being in such a “silent” environment, so to speak. They say that silence is golden; but I think this particular brand of silence is a gilded knockoff. As I see it, this silence of interaction is detrimental to a person’s sense of social ability as well as their social happiness and success. There are all kinds of things that can happen if you speak to someone you don’t know about, but you’re never going to know unless you do it.

Once you’ve been through the whole idea of the matter, it might occur to you to ask, “Exactly why do I NEED to talk to people I don’t know?” My answer to that: it’s not a matter of need. It’s a matter of opportunity. Look at the girl who sits across from you in class, or that boy with the locker near yours. They could be a fascinating conversationalist, or a riot of a comedian. They could have traits such as infectious cheerfulness, or steadfast loyalty. You’ll never know until you make contact with them. At its simplest form, you can just walk up to them, open your mouth, and begin with, “Hi, how are you?