ExperimentI only spoke when spoken to for a week and became a bulldozing bitch
Hopes&Fears challenged a friend to not initiate any conversations—spoken, e-mail or text—for a week. This is her story.
Meg Mankins is a writer based of out Oakland, California. She is a regular contributor to VICE Magazine and others.
Hopes&Fears challenged me to not speak until spoken to for an entire week, which I’m pretty sure was a staple for any child raised during the Victorian era (based on accounts in the American Girl book series on the subject). This antiquated practice got a modern update: the rules stipulated that I also couldn’t initiate any conversation via e-mail or text; I simply had to twiddle my thumbs until someone contacted me. I was also required to engage in at least two activities, which I’ll get to later. It’s interesting that they selected me, although I suppose I’m considered a “Chatty Kathy” to a certain extent. But as a female-identified person, I was surprised that I was given this challenge as several studies have proven that men dominate conversation. “Will my life change drastically? Will it be more of the same?” I asked my Magic 8 Ball silently, only to be cryptically told, “Ask again later.”
The quiet storm
Sleeping was kind of weird the night before the experiment started. It was like the night before Christmas where you knew things were going to be different when you woke up. But then, to be honest, just like the myth of Santa Claus, that wasn’t true. Things didn’t feel that different. I woke up alone like the aging old maid that I am, and thought about my imposed silence. When would it end? I flipped on my stereo. Problem solved.
I became part of
a lonely crowd where
I was constantly surrounded, but rarely interacted with others.
One of my challenges was to go to a store, buy something, then return it. I decided to live my life as normally as possible during this week. My experiment started on a Sunday, when I habitually go to the flea market. I wanted to text my friend to see if she’d come along, but this time I couldn’t. I waited around to see if she’d text me, but she didn’t. So off I went, Miss Independent moth drawn to the discounted flame. The market was packed as always. By my estimation, I ran into about twelve adults and trampled roughly five children. I was an unapologetic bulldozing bitch, plowing my way through without being able to offer ample warning to people in my path or any apologies to my victims.
I continued on my path of destruction until reaching the jackpot: an orphaned troll doll wearing a tall tee. I waved to the lady working the booth. She hadn’t sold much by the looks of it, and skipped exchanging pleasantries completely. “For you? Two dollars.” “Thanks, wow I love it,” I said, realizing my voice sounds like a bleating goat in heat. I took the doll and walked around a bit longer with my new (also silent) companion. About thirty minutes later, I circled back around and attempted the return. I started again with a casual wave. “What’s the matter?” she asked quickly. “Oh nothing, I just realized I don’t really need this thing,” I responded with a quick look down at my dejected friend. “Well you better find someone who does, hun. We don’t do returns,” she shot back. “Ok thanks,” I said, secretly glad that I got to keep the doll.
This challenge wasn’t difficult because in most situations where money is expected to change hands, those with the goods want to engage with potential customers. The customer doesn’t need to be socially proactive, s/he just needs to be lured in. While I’m used to habitually saying hi to people as I walk into a store or approach them, I also have enough retail/food service work experience to know that a big part of customer service is being friendly and welcoming. The hardest part was slithering through the crowd without being able to politely notify people before stepping on toes or elbowing their offsprings’ various body parts. What I lacked in verbal interaction I made up for in physical contact.
I ride the train to work in San Francisco every day. I habitually say good morning to all the people in my neighborhood along my walk and politely say excuse me as I squeeze like a Tetris piece between other commuters on packed train cars. This week was different. I felt more closed off from neighbors; I couldn’t initiate conversation. I could wave, but that’s kind of awkward to do when you’re passing someone that is about eight inches away. It gives off more of a “talk to the hand” vibe than a cordial “howdy.” The commute was awkward every day of this experiment.
By mid-week, I was starting to feel a real disconnect between others and myself. I became part of a lonely crowd where I was constantly surrounded, but rarely interacted with others. So I said (silently of course) fuck it. On Thursday, I ate breakfast and smeared peanut butter on my face just to see if anyone would engage with me beyond the basic “excuse me.” At least now it’d be like, “Ahem, excuse me, you’ve got shit on your face.” So off I went, a walking threat to people with peanut allergies everywhere (sorry—didn’t consider that until afterwards). And miraculously, nothing! Not a single person, including the heavy mouth breather steaming up the hair on the back of my neck, or the lady whose bag tapped morse code on my ass, said a damn thing to me!
When I got to work, a co-worker immediately pointed out the glob on my face. “Wow- miss your mouth or what? Must be hard since it’s so big,” she smirked. I told you I had a bit of a Chatty Kathy reputation. Speaking of work, my productivity really took a nosedive this week. Approximately ninety percent of my job is performing outreach to local organizations: carefully worded e-mails, awkward phone calls delivered at unusually high pitches. This experiment hurt my work performance. It went against my very job description. When I had questions on my assignments, I had to wait for my boss to check in with me, which he rarely did.
While my silence had come across as rude and inconsiderate in settings where I was surrounded by strangers, it was read as standoffish at work. My silence equaled apathy and lack of initiative. I wasn’t meeting expectations. Perceived inhibition threw off work dynamics. No one talked to me during group lunch, so I kept my opinions about junk TV and casseroles to myself. I felt pretty left out and like a failure to be honest.
I was an unapologetic bulldozing bitch, plowing my way through without being able to offer ample warning to people in my path or any apologies to my victims.
Sex and the soundless city
Friday finally arrived; I was done with being the unspeaking black sheep of the office and the experiment was finally drawing to a close. My friend texted after work about a nearby party. He’s not really a pal I’d regularly hang with, but mute beggars can’t be choosers, so what the hell. I threw on my loudest outfit to compensate for quiet demeanor, dusted off some nearly expired condoms, tossed a tall can in my bag and headed over. It was pretty normal as far as parties go. A few people accused me of ignoring them, but as soon as the accusation slipped out, I was able to make up for it by smothering them with a verbal landslide of cooped up thoughts and ideas that had been rattling around in my brain all week until they surrendered all will to live or chat with me any longer.
One antifreeze-filled Fireball shot led to another, which led to me going home with this random guy who vaguely resembled a distant relative mixed with a Furby. We did what adults do, with the overall experience rated G for Generic. Everything was cool until the next morning. I woke up around seven while my sex partner was still sound asleep. I sat there staring at him and simultaneously trying to decide what to do. Pinch his nose? Clap my hands? Wet willy? I could just leave, but that seemed weird. While I was weighing all my options and examining his ingrown chin hairs, he woke up. He glanced over to find me looking at him and just stared right back at me. I waved, but he said nothing. He mistakenly felt this was a moment of real connection for us—two souls intermingling in an extended post-coitus gaze. Wrong. I faked a sudden hacking cough. “Whoa, are you alright?” his face balanced disgust and concern unconvincingly. “Yeah, better go take care of this. Don’t worry, I’m STI-free,” I said, and just like that, I was back on the street.
I wanted to call my friend on the walk home and tell her about my night with Freaky Furby, but I couldn’t. Instead, I reflected on this experiment and what I’d learned from it. It made me re-evaluate the dynamics that existed between myself and others. Why, for example, were so many relationships at such an imbalance? There were some friends I didn’t see or talk to at all over the course of the week because they simply couldn’t be bothered to contact me. Others were constantly hitting me up, and became harder to ignore than usual. I spent time with people simply because it was easy and convenient. That didn’t feel very good. It also wasn’t particularly heartwarming to realize that many friendships were one-way streets where I did all the driving. This experiment only lasted one week, I acknowledge that. I’m not that clingy, but on many quiet afternoons I wondered if anything would change if this were to last longer. I feared that it wouldn’t.
The inability to speak until spoken to had also translated into an insane spambot-like web presence.
The inability to speak until spoken to had also translated into an insane spambot-like web presence. I became that unhinged social media user posting a status or photo every five minutes just trying to engage with others, responding to comments in thirty seconds or less. My lips might have barely moved, but my fingers compensated for them. No one warned me about carpal tunnel or premature arthritis as potential side effects when I accepted this challenge. I relied on my smartphone for validation and socialization. By the end of the week, I was ready to take a page from the Luddites’ book and smash it to pieces. It didn’t feel good to communicate that way.
The sound of silence
What did I learn in the end? That my silence was read as apathy, timidity, or insolence. I was too rude in certain situations, too inhibited in others. When I contributed nothing to the initial phase of the conversation, people were free to interpret my silence in whatever way they pleased and read me in a hundred different ways. I lost control over how I was perceived, what my intentions were. I lost the ability to verbally advocate for myself and my needs. I lost faith in many relationships and grew more attached to technology, where it was easier to control an imagined reality. My voice still sounds like a goat bleating wildly in the night. So that’s something I’ll need to learn to live with now. There were also some positive parts: I had more time to think and truly listen to others, rather than constantly engage or prematurely throw in my two cents. I accepted silence rather than trying to fight it, no matter how awkward it often felt. I became more self-sufficient in social situations. If I wanted to go out and do something, I couldn’t ask anyone to join me. I had to do it alone. I’m still feeling lingering effects of this experiment, and suspect that I will for quite some time. To sum it all up in the immortal words of Simon and Garfunkel, “And the vision that was planted in my brain / still remains / within the sound of silence.”
I lost faith in many relationships and grew more attached to technology, where it was easier to control an imagined reality.
Illustrations: Andrey Smirny