Are You Okay With Conversational Pauses?

Are you comfortable with conversational pauses? I find them horribly awkward. At dinner with someone, I can last like three seconds before busting out with a desperate “So how’s your sister?” or “Any fun plans for the weekend?!”

Maybe it’s a cultural thing. Tim Walker, an American teacher living in Helsinki, wrote an Atlantic post about five bad habits he kicked in Finland. This part jumped out:

I have yet to meet an American who doesn’t dread the awkward silence. A lull in any conversation is to be avoided at all costs…The Finns I’ve met, on the other hand, embrace the awkward silence. They understand that it’s a part of the natural rhythm of human interaction. Sure, Finns know how to have conversations, but they’re not driven by a compulsion to fill time and space with needless chatter.

On a recent school day, as I dug into a lunch of fish sticks and steamed potatoes at the teachers’ table in the cafeteria, I was joined by a Finnish colleague. We exchanged hellos…and then ate our meals in complete silence. We had been teaching all morning, and those fleeting moments of quiet were like a rest for our souls. After 10 minutes, I glanced up at the clock and, seeing that my next lesson was about to begin, broke the calm by saying goodbye. Even though we had just given each other “the silent treatment,” no harm was done. Quite the opposite, actually. I pushed in my chair feeling refreshed.

My friend and her husband have conversation pauses when they’re out to dinner. “We’re fine just enjoying our food,” she told me. “We secretly listen to the people around us and guess if they’re having good or bad dates.”

Thoughts? Can you stay quiet comfortably? Or do you have to jump in with something? (ANYTHING?)

P.S. Parenting around the world, and why Danish babies sleep outside.

(Helsinki photo via Travel & Leisure)

  1. Joanna that is definitely a good point! I suppose there is something to always look at if you are driving. I’ve learned to use the time to just sit and reflect, which is time well spent, but I’m still getting used to it. But in a restaurant it’s true, silence is more awkward since you face each other! It’s too interesting, cultural differences.

  2. It took me a long time to get used to it but working in mental health you learn the value in silence. Sometimes it’s the space people need to speak their truth and sometimes, it’s just the space people need and a safe place to get it.

    It’s also an excellent parenting tool but for totally different reasons. When my littles are trying to figure out their thoughts and process them into words it is so tempting to jump in and help them reach the point…they appear to be struggling. But when I step back and just smile and wait, I am treated to such gems as (while we are setting the table for dinner…) “Mama, I really want you to sit…… still.”

    Jaw drops. He was so right.

  3. I’m a teacher and our teachers’ lounge is always silent during our lunches. Kindergarten-2nd grade teachers at my school don’t always get a lunch break (sometimes we have to eat in the classroom with our students), so whenever we can escape to the teachers’ lounge for lunch, we enjoy the quiet!

  4. i’m an observant and listener so i know i make a lot of people (not my friends who know me well) uncomfortable with quiet moments. a cheerleadersque-colleague makes sure she says ‘you are so quiet’ to me every week. ugh, her!

  5. Anonymous says...

    I enjoy companionable silence but so often the other person is perceptibly uncomfortable. So, after determining whether they will settle into a comfortable place with it, or not, I’ll break the silence with a benign comment to put them at ease when necessary.

    It’s nice though, when you see them realize a comfortable pause is occurring don’t feel pressured to generate meaningless filler. You can feel the expansion and peace.

  6. Anonymous says...

    In France, when an awkward silence has fallen, they would say “un ange passe” that means “an angel is passing”. :-)

    • In many Spanish countries,too! (“Pasa un angel”)

  7. I always feel like if Im not talking to my partner during a meal we are becoming one of those older couples that go an entire meal without saying anything to each other-and sometimes not even smiling!-but this gave me a new perspective. Maybe I should just relax and only speak when I have something truly worth saying…that doesn’t mean our relationship is getting stale.

    “speak only if it improves upon the silence”

  8. If I’m very close with the other person, I’m fine with pauses. Otherwise, conversation lulls make me nervous.

  9. I was riding in the car with my family over the holidays and we were all silent for the first few minutes of the ride after the hustle out the door and the jumble into the car. My sister leaned over and somewhat forcefully asked “Do you like it this quiet??”. The answer is, it doesn’t bother me at all.

  10. Depends on who I am with….

  11. I think silences are good. unless its a networking event and you run out/or are bad at small talk. My hubby and I like to snoop at other people while dining out and then dish about it. It’s fun

  12. Haha this is awesome. I’ve found that the people I know best are the people I’m most comfortable having silence with. I call it the comfortable silence, and think of it very highly :) Sometimes I just need to unwind!

    Whenever I’m uneasy around a person or situation, or just don’t know them terribly well, I’m always searching to fill in that gap, and usually struggle — idle chatter is not my forte!

    Thanks for posting!

    // Regina

  13. I am comfortable with my boyfriend and my best friend. With others, I am always in active ‘learning mode’ to be comfortable with it. I have to take a deep breath and exhale and know its okay not to fill that silence with something else. Usually if I take just a second pause they will pick up where I left off, as a conversation tends to go. It’s an anxiety thing for me and learning to let go a little bit usually solves it.

  14. I am awkwardly comfortable with silence! My husband is not, however, and will do the dumbest things to fill that silence. Drives me nuts! Sometimes he will even start singing and he can’t sing.

  15. Not the same at the dinner table, but I actually learned that silence is golden from work. I’m a wildlife biologist and would have these intense conference calls or meetings with federal agencies. I painstakingly learned to keep quiet, talk purposefully, and let those long pauses happen. You actually appear smarter when you do!

    **HOLD UP** If you haven’t already, you should do a post on how to appear smarter/more confident in a meeting just based on body language! Like having a bit of scrutiny in your eyes, leaning back in your chair with steeple hands, etc. Obviously I need this if I do a lot of “steeple hands.”

    Hot Mess Mamas

  16. We are going out to dinner this evening to celebrate Valentines Day early. I am sure there will be pauses in the conversation and both my husband and I are good with that. Life was not meant to always be filled with noise… silence is healthy. XOX

  17. LB says...

    Based on this post, and some of the parenting in other countries posts, I am SO ready to move to Scandinavia! I don’t mind silence, but I know a lot of my friends do. In fact, I mind THEIR uncomfortableness more than the silence itself. It’s like I can feel them wanting desperately to fill the silence, but I just can’t bring myself to make small talk. I realize that it’s the thing to do, though, so I’m trying to be better about making conversation for conversation’s sake!

  18. This is interesting. In sales training, they actually remind you to take a moment to pause and hang in there silent as long as possible. It’s like a game of conversational chicken. Inevitably, the person you are trying to sell to will be uncomfortable with the silence and will fill the space with whatever objections they have to agreeing to the sale. That is important information that helps the salesperson to close.

  19. I find pauses quite intimidating. I can pause with certain people but with others, I feel the pressure to keep talking.

  20. I’m ok, but my pauses often make others feel uncomfy! I love to speak but I also love to stare at someone’s eyes in silence. Freaky me.

  21. I’m totally ok with silence.
    I must say I was depresses some years ago, and I have learned to be ok with myself or doing nothing. Sharing a moment of silence with someone else is easy now :)

    Helô, from Vestido do dia

  22. Hahaha! I can’t stand those awkward silences. I am a chatterbox!! I NEED to communicate with everyone!!
    Great post Joanna!

  23. I am so terrible at pauses. I feel like it is my obligation to fill them – truly! I have pulled my friend aside and asked her if I am doing a good job of it since I knew that is what she expected of me… of course she had no idea what I was talking about and told me that I seemed way more anxious about it all than she did!

    Oops… one day I will learn!

  24. I agree when it comes to the lunch room. When I end up sitting by a chatty co-worker, I feel more stressed when I have to get back to work. I’m all for a little silence!

  25. In a talk, a meditation teacher encouraged parents to practice being quiet together at the family dinner table. I love the idea.

  26. I’m with you Joanna! It certainly depends on who I’m with, but especially with an acquaintance- I’m always the one to jump in and fill in the conversation! I’m a therapist, and I’ve had to work on being more comfortable with silence! It’s certainly easier with certain people.

  27. So interesting. I am not comfortable with silence even though I’m an introvert. I’ve become a good conversationalist because I like to keep the conversation going and talk about interesting things. I always feel sorry for people who have nothing to say to each other – but maybe they are just Finnish and are happy in their own skin. I’ll have to think of that next time I see a couple not talking to each other throughout their meal in a restaurant.

  28. I was once in a car with a guy friend.. it wasn’t a date, but it felt like one and he suddenly goes, “You know, I heard somewhere that you can tell if you’re comfortable with someone if you can sit in silence and it’s not awkward”… this was followed by silence, and then a burst of laughter from both us going “Yeah, I guess we’re uncomfortable right now..” We stuck to being just friends. Ha!

    My mom is fully Finnish and it’s true – they’re known for being quiet, intellectual, “thinkers” and stubborn. American Finns (my mom and her 5 siblings) clearly didn’t get the quiet memo, but my grandmother was VERY much a true “Mmmmm” Finn and would often ignore us at the dinner table!

  29. This post kind of reminded me of that line by Alanis Morissette (“Why are you so petrified of silence? Here can you handle this-“).

    I think that being able to enjoy silence, especially with someone you are close to, it so necessary. If I can’t be silent with someone, I know I’m not comfortable.

    It’s gotten to the point where I actually crave silence; although there isn’t much of that with two little ones around!

  30. hannah, that’s so interesting! i always think silence is easier in a car because you’re looking out the window, looking forward, driving, dozing, whatever… but at a restaurant it’s a killer. even with alex, i’m like, “so….what else do you want to talk about?” :)

  31. I do feel awkward if I’m conversing with someone I’m not close to. The friendships I love best are those where we can sit in comfortable silence.

  32. KW says...

    I am ok with conversational pauses. They can form segways between topics and doesn’t necessarily need to be awkward!

  33. I am comfortable with silence when I’m with family and friends, but if I am meeting someone I don’t know well I like to try and keep the conversation going. Maybe I just don’t know how to judge if they are OK with silence or not… silence is not always a bad thing :)

  34. When I read the first few sentences I thought that you should go to Finland to experience what is it like to be around quiet Finns! But then your shared that teacher’s story – perfect :)

    It’s definitely a cultural things and from living both in the US and UK I’ve noticed that Americans as well as the British find it hard to keep quite. But then people talk so much unnecessary stuff instead of just enjoying the silence for a moment ;)

  35. I’m fine with some pauses between conversation and would rather have the conversation stop for a bit than fill the silence myself with words that really weren’t meaningful. I appreciate that pauses give us time to think, though I can see why people could be uncomfortable with them: it can sometimes feel awkward.

  36. I feel like dreading the awkward silence is something we’re bred to avoid in the U.S. Every article on dating/social interaction I read offers ways to avoid this. It’s not all that bad. Sometimes you just don’t have anything to say in that moment.

  37. I have noticed that a lot of people don’t like these pauses, but I feel the opposite—I think navigating them shows ease and comfort in conversation. I’m generally a quality over quantity type of person anyway, though :)

  38. One of my all time fav dialogue from a movie:

    Mia Wallace: Don’t you hate that?

    Vincent: What?

    Mia: Uncomfortable silences. Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bulls*** in order to be comfortable?

    Vincent: I don’t know. That’s a good question.

    Mia: That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. When you can just shut the f*** up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.
    -Pulp Fiction

  39. I work in a library, so our lunchroom is always like that finnish lunchroom– we say hi and goodbye, maybe a few minutes catch up, but we’re very comfortable sitting quietly, eating, reading, and taking a break!

    as for my social life, my husband and I traveled to europe last month for almost 10 days, and I’m so glad we are comfortable with silent pauses! it gave us time to soak up some culture, and as our only conversation companions for most of the trip, it gave us time to refuel on topics! with my girlfriends, it’s the same thing– basically, the better I know you, the more comfortable I am with those lulls.

  40. It totally depends on who I’m with. My husband or close friends/family I’m good with silence. Acquaintances I definitely feel awkward with the silence.

  41. Sometimes I’m comfortable with it, sometimes not so much. I suppose it depends on how comfortable you are with the other person, if you two are comfortable around each other you can have comfortable pauses in conversations.


  42. I am an American spending some time in France with family friends and I had to get used to the silence. I’m an introvert so it doesn’t always bother me, but one thing I can’t get over is whenever we are in the car the radio is turned off. I always drive with music playing, so I wasn’t sure what to do – make conversation or no? A car ride without any noise and more than one person kills me sometimes but I guess I’m getting used to it! Most of the time there is no talking… I figure if it were awkward they would turn the radio back on. I suppose sometimes it’s good to have silence!

  43. I’m a rather shy and reserved person so I find silences easier, especially among strangers, then trying to make small talk. My husband, on the other hand, does not like silences even when it is just us so I do a lot of listening.

  44. haha, jaclyn, that’s hilarious! and katie, that is so, so cute.

  45. I’m ok with pauses if I’m with someone I’m comfortable with… so immediate family, my husband, my best friend. I admit that small talk pauses with strangers or acquaintances are usually extremely awkward for me (like at work).

  46. My stepdad is Finnish and he is such a CHATTERBOX, we always joke that they must have kicked him out of Finland for talking too much.

    I have no issue with silence when I’m with my husband or if I’m out with just one other person but in a group setting, silence kills me!

  47. I can’t stand long pauses and it has nothing to do with not being “at peace.” I find it uninteresting and would much rather connect with another human being through a lively and spirited conversation. I find people from Latin America, Africa, the Caribbean to be much more approachable and interesting to talk to because, like a lot of Americans, there is no preference for long pauses and silence. (Obviously a gross generalization, but still)

  48. I’ve never really thought about it, but I am very okay with the occasional silence as long as I’m comfortable with the person I’m with. If I’m at a work lunch with someone I don’t know well, I dread it. If I’m out to dinner with my boyfriend, we take long pauses, smile at each other, start up conversation again when one of us has a thought. It’s lovely.

  49. One of my greatest joys is having friendships with people who are ok being silent with me. Of course, I love conversation, but I also find it absolutely delicious to be with someone while saying nothing–long car rides, dinner with my roommate, hiking. I have a select handful of friends whom I can call and say, “What are you doing? Oh. Well, bring your book/knitting/taxes over here. Do it in my living room while I sew.”

  50. Don’t get me wrong, I hate a pause or a bunch of “ums” when someone’s telling me a story or trying to get to a point – but I love being with someone in silence. My husband, friend, or family member. It’s nice to just be together without feeling like we need to chit chat about nothing. Car rides with mellow music and cool scenery, and possibly coffee, are awesome.

  51. I suppose its different with whom you have dinner with. I’m completely comfortable having pauses and silence with my husband and friends….my sister on the other hand, if there is a long pause, one or the other will blurt out, “what up?” in a really funny and loud voice…… we’re just crazy, I suppose and uncomfortable when the other one gets silent…..sisters…

  52. I once read a book on French culture of my mothers that discussed how they fill silences even more so than we do. Example given was how on a drive home they will go so far as narrating what is happening and answering their own questions to keep the discussion going. “Do we turn here?” “I believe we do.” *said as they are turning*
    My french is horrible though so I’ve had no chance to actually see if this is true while abroad.

  53. I am comfortable with social silence and I wish more of my friends were too b/c I often find it exhausting to talk non-stop. I guess that’s my introverted self coming through. In fact, I’m uncomfortable around constant chatter.

  54. I love using eating time as connecting time too much to be silent! There’s something about food that brings the guard down…real communication tends to happen.

  55. I hate it. When the conversation hits a speed bump, I get really scatter brained trying to think of something to talk about! The weather can only last so long.. Love this though…how interesting. I think emotions can be sensed which is what make ‘awkward silence’ so…awkward. People can sense when someone else is out of their comfort zone or is tense. With this thought in mind, I’m going to try to take it in stride and just try to be more relaxed.

  56. My husband and I often joke that, when we’re out at dinner, people must think we’re “that sad couple” with nothing to say to each other. In fact, it’s quite the opposite, we have plenty to talk about – and do – but we love being able to enjoy each other’s company in silence, sometimes while we eavesdrop on the ridiculous conversations and awkward dates going on around us. Bonus: we have even more to talk about on the drive/walk home afterwards.

  57. I don’t believe in awkward. It’s normal and fine to have nothing to say to someone. The Finn’s are on to something!

  58. I can’t deal with long silences,especially during meals or long car rides. I fear the other person is bored with me if we can’t keep a conversation going. I also think people who aren’t talkative are boring to be around. I love to talk! That said, I detest chit chatting just to chit chat with professional service providers like a hairstylist or manicurist.

  59. Interesting. Although I certainly wouldn’t refer to my husband when talking about awkward pauses in conversation. Is that not one of the great things about having a partner-that you can just hang out without feeling the need to constantly fill the air with words?

  60. i’m okay with pauses in the conversation. my husband and i are both introverts (me more than him) and he’s a teacher so he talks alot at work. i’m a librarian and think that sometimes my colleagues and i try to stagger our lunches so we don’t have to talk! haha i really like them, but when we do overlap at lunch talking isn’t required, at least not with all of us. :)

    on the other hand, when i’m in situations where i’m in some position of authority/where i’m more familiar and others may be new (maybe wrong word, but situations like, working at the reference desk, meeting new people at church, etc.) i feel more the need to direct the conversation and make the other person comfortable. that goes back to my sorority days and learning how to make small talk meaningful during recruitment! :)

  61. I’m comfortable with the silences because of my dad. He listens intently while the other person is talking and not until they finish does he even start to form his response. The long pause really throws people.

  62. Ah, I hate silence! But I hate talking at the same time. I used to walk home to eat lunch everyday because the thought of joining people for lunch gave me such anxiety! I would love if it we could all just accept some silence in between conversation, or just silence itself.

  63. I’m only comfortable with silence with particular people like my sister, my best friend and recently my boyfriend. He and I were walking one day, not talking and at one point he asked me if I was comfortable with the silence. I surprisingly realized I was. With others, I feel awkward. What a funny thing it is.

  64. I’m horrified of long pauses during dinner…or car rides, especially…with someone I’m not very close with. I’ve always judged my closeness with a person if they’re someone I’d feel perfectly comfortable with riding in a car in silence. There aren’t many of them, but I appreciate the ones I have.

  65. I used to have a boyfriend with whom I shared the most beautiful silences. It never felt awkard!

    On the other hand, I recently went on a date with a guy and I was so uncomfortable that I kept saying “umm, what can we talk about now?” all the time. He never called me back, of course!

    I agree with bisbee in the first comment, I hate talking on the phone for the same reason.

  66. When I was in college, my then-boyfriend and I were out to dinner and we sat near a middle aged couple who hardly spoke during their whole meal. We talked almost non-stop the whole time. Afterward, he and I couldn’t get over that other couple, and we said things like, “So depressing,” “Can you imagine how boring their relationship must be?” and, “I hope that never happens to us!”

    Well, now I’m one of those middle aged people, and when my husband and I have long silences, I find it so peaceful and relaxing. It feels like we are just “being” together. We still have wonderful, animated conversations, just not all the time.

  67. I’m comfortable with them, if I’m with someone I know well. My boyfriend and I are silent all the time — we live with each other, and we can only have so many things to talk about. If not, I need something to do or something else to watch/listen to. So if we’re at a restaurant it’s fine — I’m eating and other people are around. Just sitting on a couch in silence…not so much. I usually feel the impulse to fill the silence.

  68. I know most people find conversational pauses to be painfully awkward, but I am very comfortable with them. I’m the type of person who only talks when I have something to say, and small talk irritates me to no end! I’m much happier with just sitting in silence and enjoying my food, or whatever else I’m doing at the time, than listening to someone blather on about nothing just to fill the silence. I know it sounds harsh, but I do understand that everyone’s comfort level is different!

  69. Ha! This reminds me of the year I spent in Norway…similar to Finns, Norwegians are OK with silence or long pauses. They also respond to each other with a simple “Mmm,” so much so that there is a joke that Norwegians can have a whole conversation with just “Mmm”s! My Norwegian friends observed that I always felt the need to say something in response, e.g. “That’s great!” or “Cool!” They definitely saw Americans as wordy people… But then when I returned to the States, I had to get chatty again, because people found it rude to respond with “Mmm” or a simple “No” instead of “No thank you but I so appreciate the offer you’re so kind!” Hee.

  70. I typically am fine with pauses but really only because I’m being nosey and listening to those around me!

  71. I think it depends on who I’m with.

    A former colleague/friend once said to me over lunch “I’m glad we’ve reached a place in our relationship where it’s perfectly acceptable to not talk.” I couldn’t agree more!

  72. Such a great post! I went to high school in Scandinavia and this habit of being at peace in silence transformed me. I look for this quality in potential friends and romantic partners. It indicates to me that the other person is at peace with themselves.

  73. He he this is so funny! I’m from Finland and yes, pauses in the conversation is a must. I think I can be quiet veeery long without feeling awkward.

  74. Ha! I love this… I think I’m maybe too comfortable with these quiet moments! Hopefully I’m not contributing to anyone else’s anxiety over them, but one of my favorite aunts is so good at listening and drawing people out solely because she allows those conversational pauses. As a result, she seems to have the most interesting, deep conversations with people. I’d much rather have the pause than the small talk!

  75. I’m quite comfortable with silence when I’m with someone…maybe that’s why I absolutely HATE talking on the phone, since silence is counter-productive, and I don’t enjoy having to say something to fill the space!