Elizabeth Day: ‘Sometimes it’s good to shut up and listen’

‘Sometimes it’s good to shut up and listen’

Dress, Rixo, from Trilogy. Sandals, Malone Souliers

I recently had a sore throat for three weeks. It wasn’t tonsillitis. Nor was it a symptom of flu. The doctor told me it was ‘a virus’, which seems to be what everyone says about any bodily function that falls out of the normal realm. (‘Oh, your arm has been chopped off? Virus, mate. Nothing you can do about it. Just wait for it to pass.’)

The side effect was that I didn’t quite lose my voice but it became distinctly quiet: it was difficult to project to my dining companion in noisy restaurants. At social gatherings, I could not be heard over background music. After a while, I contented myself with observing the proceedings and not talking.

To begin with, it was stressful not being able to take part in the cut and thrust of conversation. If I had a joke to make, no one would hear it. If someone posed a question I was able to answer, I couldn’t raise my voice enough to reply. It was like being a foreign exchange student unable to make herself understood by her host family.

But after a few days, I started to find my imposed silence relaxing. Previously, my default in a social setting had been to strike up conversation and to ensure everyone else was included. I think a lot of women have cultivated this skill – it’s a way of collaborating with others and building a community, rather than dominating the discourse with pompous certainty in the way that certain alpha males are wont to do.

With my unexplained sore throat, I was forced into the position of observer. When I was with close friends, it turned out the chatter happened quite easily without my interventions. Perhaps, I realised, I’d been inventing a role for myself all along. But when I was with people I knew less well, it was a different matter.

Uber drivers, for instance, seemed to think it was insulting that I didn’t automatically want to launch into a detailed conversation about how my day had been or how theirs had been. When I explained hoarsely that I had a sore throat, they shrugged as if I were lying. There was a time when we were allowed to get into the back of taxi-cabs and look out of the window at the passing scenery. These days, a glance out of the window is taken as an invitation by the driver to converse, as if gazing at the passing landscape is a cry for help. ‘So,’ the driver will start. ‘How has your day been?’

Silences don’t always have to be awkward 

I want to say that I’d be far happier left alone with my thoughts for 20 minutes. I have the rest of my week to talk relentlessly. But this, too, would be taken as rudeness and my Uber rating would plummet further. Instead, I’ve reverted to asking for the radio to be on and leaving a tip to assuage my entirely unnecessary guilt. A friend of mine pretends she’s in the early stages of pregnancy and that talking makes her nauseous. ‘They hate the idea that I’ll throw up in the back of their cab,’ she says. ‘It works a treat.’

I’ve never managed to do this with a straight face. But when the sore throat eventually passed, I thought about the value of silence. There is so little of it in our lives. Every café has a playlist of painfully slowed-down acoustic versions of rock classics on loop. Every train carriage is polluted by the tinny feedback of other people’s leaking headphones. Every television and radio news programme is a mad pile-up of vocal opinion. And truly? It’s knackering.

Yet the alternative – silence – is distrusted. It’s as if, in being quiet, we’re signalling our disapproval, in the same way someone doing dry January makes the rest of us feel bad for getting drunk. Maybe we need to get more comfortable with not talking. Silences don’t always have to be awkward, after all. Sometimes, you’re just looking at the view.

This week I’m…

Reading What Red Was by Rosie Price. A debut novel that examines the effect of one woman’s sexual trauma and the repression of English class. 

Wearing these hoop earrings from Mango. They go with everything without being boring. 

Walking in black mock-croc mules from Zara. I always like a heel that I can run for the tube in and wear with jeans or dress up for the evening.



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