Silence symbolizes a variety of things, such as:
- Awkwardness – people go silent after an awkward moment
- Comfort – people who are comfortable with each other can be silent together
- Peace – people often seek ‘peace and quiet’
- Productivity – a quiet classroom is often a productive classroom
- Calm before the storm – it’s often silent just before a lot of activity.
Because of the wide variety of things silence can symbolize, you need to take a look at the context to really understand its symbolic significance. I’ll explain the context of each symbol below.
Read Also: Silence Metaphors
What does Silence Symbolize?
Two people sitting in silence is often a sign of awkwardness. Consider, for example, being on a first date and running out of things to talk about. In this situation, there’s no other way to explain it than … awkward!
But this could extend to many other situations such as if someone says something in a social situation that is socially inappropriate. Everyone might go deadly quiet. People might also stop making eye contact or start fiddling with something in front of them, hoping for the awkward moment to pass.
In direct contrast to the awkwardness point above, there can also be situations where silence can be interpreted as comfort.
It’s rare to be able to sit quietly with someone without feeling uncomfortable (or awkward!). But when you’re so comfortable with someone that you feel like you don’t need to talk and entertain each other but just enjoy each other’s company in silence.
When I reflect on how many people I can sit in silence with while feeling perfectly comfortable, it probably extends to my partner and my parents. Everyone else I feel I’d need to be chatting with or entertaining.
Imagine being a school teacher with 25 screaming children in your class. You may think they’re lovely, but boy are they noisy! After you’ve sent them all home to their parents, you might walk back into your silent classroom, slump down on your chair, and breathe a big sigh of relief.
The same might work for parents when they send their kids to school. Once you get home to a quiet house, you might be incredibly relieved. Noise – and especially noise ‘pollution’ – can be very draining and leave you exhausted. Usually, we’ll only associate silence with peace after a period of a lot of noise.
4. Work and Productivity
If you were to go back to that teacher analogy, imagine again being a teacher in a classroom that’s full of children, but they’re quietly working away at their tasks. There might be a mild hum or buzz of activity now and then, but it’s a bit of a working hum – a child asking their friend for an eraser – rather than chatter.
In this situation, the silence can be interpreted as productivity. The people are silent because they’re so busy working away.
This can sometimes be the ideal situation in a classroom or workplace and can also be a comfortable silence because it involves people working alongside each other happily, but it isn’t due to awkwardness in any way.
5. Nature and Escape
We tend to associate noise with cities and built-up areas. People who move to the countryside will often make that move specifically to escape the noise of the city. They want to live somewhere where you can’t hear traffic driving past or the hustle of people walking around outside.
Similarly, you’ll often find people on silent meditations escaping to nature to get away from “the noise of the world”.
When you refer to silence in this positive sense of it being an escape from the world, it’s commonly associated with “serenity”. Something that’s serene is enjoyably calm and tranquil – much like a rainforest or a nature walk.
While sometimes silence after a lot of noise is nice, a long stretch of silence that feels like it won’t end can be a symbol of loneliness. Often film makers will use silence to emphasize the idea of loneliness. For example, they might show someone screaming out for help. Then, a long silence will follow to emphasize the idea that someone is all alone. Similarly, someone who feels lonely might be depicted sitting on the floor in a room soaking in the silence all around them.
If you watch a horror film, silence is used regularly to generate a sense of fear. Often, a film will depict a person lying under their bed, for example, and they’re listening out intently for the killer. Here, silence might only be pierced by the fearful breaths and gasps of the person hiding.
Similarly, we’ll often be lying in bed in the middle of the night and a sense of fear might overcome us. In particular, if you’re afraid of the dark, you might feel as if the quiet is accentuated in these situations. All your senses are heightened to accommodate for your inability to see, so you’re more aware of the silence than ever in the darkness when trying to listen for scary monsters of the night.
7. Calm Before the Storm
Silence is also often seen as preceding something dramatic. It could be a storm or tornado, for example, and you might be sitting quietly just waiting for the storm to come through and rattle your house.
But it doesn’t necessarily need to be a literal storm. Your character might be sitting in silence waiting for their partner to come home, knowing they’re about to get into an argument. Or your character might be (like in the ‘fear’ example above) waiting for a murderer to break into their house and look for them while they’re under their bed.
> Read Also: Storm Symbolism
8. Heightened Awareness
When silence symbolizes heightened awareness, it’s usually in darkness. This is because
But another time it might symbolize heightened awareness is in a time of panic or high adrenalin.
This is a common film making strategy in the seconds before a car crash or at the very moment someone dives out of an airplane. The scene usually slows right down and goes quiet. The character might turn to look at the car that’s about to crash into theirs and the moment is made to feel like it takes forever. You can take everything in during this silent moment of heightened awareness.
There’s an element of ‘calm before the storm’ in this symbol, too.
Sometimes people who are really angry will go quiet. It might be a strategy to make sure they don’t say anything they will regret, or it could be a silence while they’re trying to process information in their minds. This quietness can be unnerving. Often we want someone to speak so we can understand how they’re feeling when they are angry.
This ‘angry silence’ is often associated with masculinity. For example, you might hear a man being described as the “strong silent type” to describe what might be culturally interpreted as a masculine silence.
> Read Also: Metaphors for Anger
When you’re not talking, you can’t spread any secrets around!
Imagine walking into a conversation between two people and when you walk into the conversation they go strangely silent all of a sudden. In this situation, it’s a clear symbol that they were talking about something that they don’t want you to know about.
Similarly, you will see people putting a finger over their lips to remind someone to keep a secret. But, more literally, the finger over the lips is saying: “Be silent! Don’t talk!”
Lastly, silence can be interpreted as a symbol of tension. This relates closely to the idea that silence symbolizes awkwardness – because awkwardness can involve a whole lot of tension. If the silence follows an insulting comment, you can definitely feel some tension in the air.
But, similarly, the quiet can symbolize tension in the “calm before the storm” which was also discussed earlier.
Imagine, for example, some soldiers conducting a raid. They may tiptoe so they don’t alert the people in the building they are raiding. This silence helps us interpret the fact that you’re in a moment of tension.
12. Protest and Defiance
While you might commonly think of protest as something that’s loud and rowdy, sometimes a protest that’s perfectly quiet has just as much power. People who disagree with someone might simply decide not to speak; or people might refuse to speak while being interviewed in court as a sign of defiance.
Another example of silent protest was that of Rosa Parks, who didn’t yell and scream. She simply sat on a bus. But Rosa Parks spoke a thousand words by saying nothing at all. Similarly, the 1917 Silent Protest Parade in East St. Louis was particularly powerful particularly because of the symbolic power of thousands of people being absolutely quiet together.
We often take a “moment of silence” to remember people who have died. This is particularly true to remember those who have died in combat in service of their countries. The idea here is to take a quiet moment of reflection that pieces through our busy lives. It marks a distinct contrast to the busyness of our days. And this is necessary for us to reflect and be grateful to those who gave their lives for us. If we didn’t take those quiet moments to reflect, we might lose touch of what’s important and why we need to be grateful for what we have and those who sacrificed so much for us to have the freedom so many of us experience today.
> See Also: Freedom Metaphors
The above symbols are by no means the only ones you’ll be able to come up with, but they’re some of the most common meanings you could deduce from moments of silence, be it in real life, described in books, or on films.
Because of the wide variety of ways you can interpret silence, it’s important to take into account the context of the situation. This can help you get a better understanding of what it means and how it influences a situation. In one moment it might represent something positive like peace and calm, while at another it might symbolize the exact opposite: terror and fear!
I’m a Scorpio, I love the outdoors, and I’ve written articles in some major online publications like Medium and The Weekly. My favorite metaphor? Anything that’s got to do with baseball. I’m fascinated by the fact our language has baseball weaved all through it. Read more about me here.