There were fifteen of us around the lunch table on Saturday, everyone chatting away. Then suddenly the table went silent. A friend who was seated across the table from me glanced at his watch; “Seven minutes exactly,” he said.
“What about seven minutes?” I asked.
“Don’t you know? After seven minutes, there is always a lull in the conversation.”
I looked at my friend; he seemed perfectly serious. “Check it out,” he said.
So I did. Know what? He’s right!
It’s a phenomenon known as the “awkward pause,” and it almost always comes at the seven minute mark of any given conversation. It’s like a rest note in music, a momentary lull that allows speakers and listeners time to regather their thoughts, to come up for air, as it were.
It appears the awkward pause has been there all along, so how have I lived all these years and never heard of it or noticed it before. Makes me wonder: what other little quirks of life have I been missing?
It seems the seven minute pause makes many people uncomfortable. Extroverts, who often prefer that every moment be filled to the brim with conversation, may be particularly uneasy. At times, the unpleasant feeling can be too much for some of those types, and so they just decide to end the conversation abruptly. Or maybe this happens: the sudden lull or silence in a conversation silence triggers commentary on the weather just to fill all that dead air time. Yes, silence is deemed so awful that we compare it to death!
I’ll be honest: I am comfortable with silence. It’s all-too-often in short supply around my house, so when I find some a corner of stillness, I go and sit in it. It usually doesn’t last very long, but for me, a little pause goes a long way, so all that talk about the weather be damned. We’ll find something better to talk about soon enough.
Let’s just assume that awkward pauses have always been a part of life. They might even actually serve a more powerful purpose than most of us realize. What if there were no silence? What if every conversation we entered into never ended, or every question we asked was followed by an immediate answer? Would there ever be time to think deeply, become introspective, or form clear connections? I bet each one of us can remember one nerdy classmate whose hand shot up instantly whenever the teacher asked a question. In response, the rest of us just rolled our eyes and checked out, allowing him or her to be the know-it-all. Think of all the opportunities for reflection and deliberation we missed. Then again, think of all the inane answers or gobbledegook we might have spouted.
Here’s a theory about the seven minute pause: it’s hardwired in us. Back when our ancestors were hunter/gatherers, they had to pause every so often to make sure they weren’t the ones being hunted or gathered. It was a survival instinct. Now, a full million eons later, if all that remains of that instinct is an awkward pause in the conversation, maybe it was worth the paleontological wait.
But wait: there’s another strange plot twist in this story. Some folks out on the fringe of the awkward pause theory believe it usually comes at around 20 minutes past the hour. Proponents of this belief say it happens out of respect for Abraham Lincoln who was shot at approximately 10:13 pm and died at 7:22 am the next morning. OK; I think that’s a little farfetched, but who knows what really happens in the twilight zone.
But this I do know: when that awkward pause does rear its ugly little head, there’s always someone in the conversation who is making some outrageous and overly loud claim, and when everyone else clams up, that person is the one who has the last word. Good timing or bad? You decide.
Alright, I’ve been at this long enough, and you and I both could benefit from a moment of silence. We’ll leave it at that.
I’ll be right back.
Jamie Kirkpatrick is a writer and photographer who lives in Chestertown. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Washington College Alumni Magazine, and American Cowboy Magazine. His new novel “This Salted Soil,” a new children’s book, “The Ballad of Poochie McVay,” and two collections of essays (“Musing Right Along” and “I’ll Be Right Back”), are available on Amazon. Jamie’s website is Musingjamie.net.