I am fascinated by public moments of silence to commemorate the dead. In Spain, it seems as if every other first-league football game starts with one. Shushing as many as 80,000 people, ready to cheer for their team with raw emotion, has always struck me as quite an accomplishment, and the resulting quiet — sporadically interrupted by hecklers or screaming babies — is riveting and disturbing at once. It’s an intense moment, a weighty void, in the maelstrom of time.
Notwithstanding my fascination with moments of silences, in general though, silence is not my forte. Worse, it freaks me out. I’m the one who keeps talking just to cover the unnerving pause in conversations, and I’m the one who offers a random thought if no one else does, just to break the ice. I read recently that a survey showed most people would prefer receiving mild electroshocks over being alone with their thoughts, and it made perfect sense to me. Silence is golden, sure, but not speaking? No!
During Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last month, one of the world’s largest gatherings of the tech industry, I was one of the curators and producers of the House of Beautiful Business, a special pop-up community devoted to strengthening human technology. The premise of the two days of programming was that doing our work more beautifully will be the only way to maintain our humanity in the age of machines — because ethos, character, passion, and love are qualities still exclusive to us humans. We found a beautiful place as our venue: the Casa de la Seda, the House of Silk, an old guild house in the heart of Barcelona that was the hub for beautiful business 200 years ago and now served as the perfect stage for our discussions about humanism, morality, poetry, and purpose in light of AI, automation, efficiency thinking, widening social divides, and populism.
Dinners at conferences can often end up being speed-dating sessions for business proposals and loud acts of shameless self-promotion. Which is why we thought we should not only ask our guests to refrain from pitching but to go a step further and ask them to not speak at all and, of course, to abstain from all electronic devices. The Silent Dinner we hosted “for those tired of talking,” was an invitation to be alone together, to be fully with yourself and with strangers, not just an exercise in mindfulness, but nothingness. Together, we were going to practice listening closely, in order to pay attention to all the nonverbal acts of communication that would suddenly seem so much more pronounced.
We didn’t know exactly what to expect. What if someone suddenly spoke up and breached the secret pact? Could there be such thing as silent mansplaining? Would there be follow-up notes such as “I met you at the silent dinner and loved what you didn’t say about I don’t know what”?
No words, all feeling
Silent dinners are not a new idea. My House of Beautiful Business co-curator Jaimie Stettin had hosted one with friends at her apartment in Paris a few months earlier, and her account was riveting. For centuries, silent dinners have been the norm at monasteries and in other spiritual settings. The Passover table is set for an extra guest, Elijah, and the door is opened during the Seder to receive him and silently — or at least symbolically — join the meal. Today, there are Silent Dinner Party art projects, and Silent Dinners have become popular as an antidote to the digital overwhelm of our times.
And yet ours still felt fresh and groundbreaking, in a very personal way. It magnified all non-verbal exchanges. Both weak and strong ties were forged, flirtations exchanged, introverts stayed introverts and extroverts stayed extroverts, and, as to be expected, some of the guests (including yours truly) dominated the silent conversation. Views crossed, eyes locked, and slowly but surely details like jewelry, subtle gestures, and the landscape of our faces grew in importance and eventually became the conversation, The waiters were greeted with applause whenever they entered the room, slightly nervous. I engaged in a gregarious sign language conversation with the woman to my right, but the best time we had when we were simply listening to the music together.
That, however, proved to be astonishingly hard. Except for two, rather stoic guests who leaned back, everyone else leaned forward, wanted to engage, to communicate, to create meaning, to create something. A few guests even stood up to start La Ola, the wave; others began to tinker with the name cards or assemble utensils into pieces of amateur art. One woman gave an expressive silent toast: no words, all feeling.
Since we had no tools for debate or discourse, and nonverbal dialogue proved increasingly difficult after the initial sign language trials, we began to play. We made paper planes together and even rejoiced in making up fictitious sign language. The whole point of it all was not to understand and not to be understood.
At times, there was a subtle, implicit nod to one another, like the discrete wink of the two lovers at the end of La La Land or that of Ulay, the performance artist, when he sat across from long-time collaborator and lover Marina Abramović during her MoMA exhibit, The Artist Is Present.
Misunderstanding as a feature
The unexpected guest of honor was the music. Jaimie had created a playlist that served as commentary, if not main character. From Peals to Nick Cave to Nick Drake to the soundtrack of Her, the music set the tone and the rhythm for our interactions. I have always hated that moment at a party when a favorite song starts and no one else pays attention. Here, we all became one captive audience, honoring the artists, honoring the art. Forget concerts, I was thinking, silent dinners are the most appropriate setting for listening to music collectively.
When the music ended, after 90 minutes, everybody was allowed to speak again. But no one did. The silence had become too weighty, too sacred, to be broken immediately with mundane chatter. So in a silent pact we stayed silent for another 10 minutes or so. Then Jaimie released us and brought us back to the world of words, softly whispering hers. “How long do you think the dinner lasted?” she asked. “60 minutes,” most people guessed. Time had flown by. We did a quick round of reactions, and all 18 guests seemed touched, in one way or the other: “I was surprised how comfortable I felt,” one man said. Another: “I understand much of our communication occurs non-verbal, but now I know just how powerful words are!”
The dinner exposed us, in a gentle way, to a brutal truth: our inherently human desire to communicate, and our inherently human inability to do so effectively. We cannot not communicate, as Paul Watzlawick once observed, but we are also not very good at it. The silent dinner assured us, though, that misunderstanding was a feature, not a bug. It’s this fatal but lovely flaw that connects us all in our basic humanity. We all want to see and be seen, we want to be recognized as those we are and want to be, and we want to create ad play. It’s as simple as that.
The best moments in life are silent
In an age when talking is the norm and rudeness seems legitimate, listening is a disruptive activity. When we don’t speak, we remove the clutter. It is not that silence is golden, more economical or more profound — after overcoming the initial awkwardness, it is just so much more pleasant. Because, let’s face it, while there are still many things to be done, everything has already been said. And just forgotten.
Nowadays, we use language mostly to defend ourselves. Silence leaves us indefensible. Imagine conflict parties in a room for 90 minutes, silently staring at each other, seeing each other reduced to the max, to the essence of their humanity. Perhaps silent diplomacy should be added as a new tool to the arsenal of conflict mediators and the world’s political leaders. The thought of Donald Trump and Angela Merkel having a silent dinner together is an intriguing one.
As a friend of mine likes to say, “The best things in life happen around a table.” I’d like to add: the best moments in life are silent. Maybe that’s why I liked everybody at the silent dinner, for the first time at a dinner table at all. In fact, it was more than just liking, it was a strange sensation of tenderness, of fundamental mutual agreement. “This is how it’s supposed to be. This is how we are supposed to be,” told me a dinner guest afterward. And indeed, it felt like falling in love — with everything. Days after the dinner I couldn’t help talking about it, with my mind desperately trying to catch up with my heart.
With all the noise cut out, every distraction removed, the only voice in the room had been my own. Don’t you worry, it had said. It’s ok.
Video: Patrick Kohl and Alina Koschnike for IXDS