Rhodri Marsden: How to survive an uncomfortable silence (hint: it's best not to panic)

Life on Marsden

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The Independent Online

Two men, only casually acquainted, suddenly realise that they're sitting next to each other on a bus. Both are appalled. They were hoping for some quiet reading time. Anxiety levels now rise as they bow meekly to society's insistence that they participate in a stiff exchange of pleasantries. Suddenly, inevitably, both men's minds freeze into individual sorbets of inadequacy. An uncomfortable silence ensues.

The man with glasses and a beard – all right, let's face it, it's me – considers initiating a conversation about the weather, but can't remember the word for isobars. The other man blows his nose, using snot to relieve the tension. It doesn't work. The silence extends, imprisoning us. We want to escape, but are somehow unable to do so – you know, a bit like going to see The Hobbit starring Martin Freeman.

I've become fascinated by uncomfortable silences recently, as I'm in that initial stage of a relationship where such silences might seem indicative of everything going pear-shaped. You've been there, I'm sure. You're walking down the street together, a silence descends, you start pointing at stuff in panic and saying, "Oh! Look! I've never seen one of those before; have you?" and the other person says, "Er, yes, it's a bicycle," and then you split up.

Solutions to uncomfortable silences are widely available, ranging from the all-purpose British classic ("Well, this is nice") to Uma Thurman's suggestion in the film Pulp Fiction ("I'll go to the bathroom and powder my nose while you sit here and think of something to say"). Some self-proclaimed relationship experts recommend acknowledging the uncomfortable silence, but it doesn't always work. I remember once walking down a towpath with a new acquaintance who, tired of my yammering, said, "You know what's great? When you can share a comfortable silence." We then walked on in a distinctly uncomfortable silence, both aware that he'd effectively said, "Shut it."

Anyway, back to the bus. A powerful reflex forces me to ding the bell, stand up and say, "Well, this is me" – which I've always thought to be a linguistically unusual way of bidding farewell, but let's not dwell on that. The crucial point is that it's not even my stop. The price I pay to end the uncomfortable silence is £1.40 and an eight-minute wait for the next bus, which I reckon to be an awesome new-year bargain.