Embrace the Awkward Silence

Conversational lulls may be harder to avoid than ever—so we might as well get used to them.

illustration of two people talking with a speech bubble between them that contains an ellipses
Illustration by Liana Finck

At this point, Julie Boland is resigned to awkward silences. She’s a psychology and linguistics professor at the University of Michigan, and like many of us, she’s been spending a lot of time on Zoom calls over the past few years—and seemingly always dealing with internet lags and people fumbling to mute and unmute their mic. When there’s a pause, no one seems to know whose turn it is to speak. It helps, at least somewhat, that Boland knows the reason these breaks tend to feel cringey: They disrupt the conversational volley of call-and-response that usually comes to people naturally. We are alert to the moment rhythm ruptures, like when someone loses the beat in a karaoke performance.

Uncomfortable silences have always existed, but in many ways, they’re harder to avoid today than ever before. We interact with both strangers and acquaintances—with whom we’re likely to have some clumsy back-and-forths—at a rate that would have been unheard-of before people flooded to cities and travel grew far easier. And now modern communication technologies such as Zoom, Boland’s research suggests, beget particularly inelegant conversations. It doesn’t help that many of us exited pandemic lockdown to find that our social skills had atrophied. Though awkward silences are an inherent part of daily life, people really wish they could escape them: Abundant books, YouTube explainers, and wikiHow tutorials advise people on how to keep conversation flowing uninterrupted at parties, in meetings, or on first dates.

And yet, if these pauses are unavoidable, we should probably learn to live with them. We might even find that they give us the space to be more intentional about what to say next.

The fear of conversational lulls has a long history. The Belgian poet Maurice Maeterlinck complained in 1896 that “the silence of many … brings dread to the mightiest soul.” A 1947 editorial lamenting the quiet of crowded elevators even called for “good wholesome inter-elevator entertainment like movies or a speech on each ride.” For decades, people have worried that awkward silences are somehow worse than just awkward—that they’re wrong. In 1978, a writer for Baltimore’s Evening Sun claimed that pauses in dinner talk across the United States were growing longer, a trend that might represent a permanent collapse of human discourse. “After three million years,” he wrote, “mankind is at last running out of things to talk about while eating.”

To be fair, some distaste for mid-conversation silence is cognitively natural. Humans are usually pretty good at syncing their response times with those of their conversation partner; some researchers believe that our brains actually fire relevant neurons at a rate synchronized to the other person’s speech. But sometimes we fall out of step—and if that disjunction lasts for too long, we tend not to like it. In one study, a researcher tried to measure what she called the “standard maximum silence,” the longest lull people can typically tolerate before they begin to itch to say something. For most participants, that came after only one second.

A hatred of awkward silences could also derive from overthinking them, wondering if they signal some displeasure or lack of interest from the other party. Studies have found that smooth conversations—those free of pauses and filler words like uh—can boost people’s self-esteem and sense of belonging, creating a feeling of collective harmony. Disjointed conversations, meanwhile, tend to make people feel rejected. In a 2013 study, participants listened to recordings of someone asking a friend for help with a small task; if the friend replied within 500 milliseconds, researchers found, the subject viewed them as eager to help. But by the time the response delay reached 700 milliseconds—still less than a second—subjects started perceiving the friend as agreeing begrudgingly, even if they didn’t say anything of the sort.

Not every silence is a snub, though; most conversations don’t flow perfectly. That’s especially true on Zoom, according to Boland, the University of Michigan professor. She’d wondered whether stilted virtual meetings were awkward in part because of the technology itself. And in a recent study, she confirmed her hunch: Videochatting throws off our conversational rhythms, making it unclear whose turn it is to speak and leading to more frequent, drawn-out pauses. And as video communication becomes more common in work and social life, people are likely encountering more of these awkward silences than ever.

In person, too, modern life is filled with the potential for awkwardness. Over the past century, air transportation, urbanization, and the rise of digital communities have combined to broaden the average social network, allowing us to meet—and forge connections with—far more people than when it was common to spend your whole life in one locale. Whole new categories of relationships have opened up, such as the “consequential strangers” you see frequently in a specific context. (Think of the person you might play against in your club softball league, or with whom you might occasionally DM on Twitter.) But the more we interact with those “weak ties,” as some researchers call them, the more we’ll probably wind up in some bumpy conversations.

That might be especially true in the dating world. Apps have normalized the idea of wooing a complete stranger—not a friend of a friend, or an acquaintance you met at a club or a conference, but someone with whom you may have little common ground to fall back on when the conversation falters. And the stakes can feel particularly high: “You’re trying to assess the worth and potential of that person,” Carolina Bandinelli, who studies dating-app communication at the University of Warwick, in England, told me. Some daters are so desperate to avoid awkward pauses that they’ve begun devising questionnaires for their potential love interests ahead of time.

People also deploy all kinds of subtler tricks to keep silence at bay, on a date or otherwise. Simon Betz, a linguistics researcher at Germany’s Bielefeld University, told me that when it’s our turn to speak but we’re still thinking of how to respond, we might use one of those filler words (um) or even a whole filler phrase (That’s an interesting question).

No pause is inherently awkward, though—rather, we actively read the awkwardness into a situation, usually based on context. Silence experienced in front of a sunset might be less stressful than in the middle of having drinks, for instance, while a lull with a new friend will probably feel more painful than with an old one. And conversations that don’t contain long breaks aren’t necessarily better; some exchanges demand time to think and process. If you’re too afraid to take a beat, you might not be processing much at all.

Boland gave me an example: Many years ago, she worked with someone who took unusually long pauses before answering a question. At first, when Boland watched this colleague fall silent, she would think he didn’t know what to say. By the time he spoke, however, “he would give me this extremely articulate, easy-to-understand answer,” she said. It was awkward at first—but then it wasn’t.

Boland wonders whether everyone might be better off taking more response time, and I think she has a point. Maybe people would more thoughtfully evaluate arguments, rather than just reflexively agreeing or disagreeing. On dates, maybe they’d ask questions that unlocked a new side of the other person, rather than settling on obvious ones to fill dead air (“How long ago did you move here?”).

The benefits of silence in certain contexts are already becoming clear. Medical publications have begun advising doctors to pause during consultations, so that patients have more time to gather and share their thoughts. Business experts, too, have found that silences in meetings give people a chance to think up and share new ideas, leading to more diverse viewpoints being contributed.

All of this sounds great in theory, until you are staring across the table at someone, realizing that you’ve run out of conversation, and the dread kicks in. Even if humans are unlikely to ever make themselves love those moments, maybe we can train ourselves to sit with some discomfort. Given that modern life is full of awkward silences, we might need to. And anyway, social interaction has never been consistently easy: We are each separate and complicated beings, unable to read one another’s thoughts or perfectly translate our own into speech. But finding ways to reach through to someone is all the more thrilling for that reason—and perhaps a little clunkiness along the way is just the price of connection.