May 2, 2014

Knowing not telling

The absence of conversation is not the same as the absence of a friendship.

Studying abroad feels a lot like returning to high school. You see the same people every day, take the same classes with them, ride the same tram home, split checks after meals, spend weekends together. In short, there’s a lot of togetherness.

A side effect of this constant presence is silence. It’s not uncomfortable or awkward or even unwanted; it is simply the lack of words—new ones, at least. Silence settled in shortly after second week, after the novelty faded and we had all learned each other’s names and majors, vague life stories, and favorite movies. One day at lunch when the food arrived, I realized that, even though I was sitting with two friends, I had not said a word since ordering. The only chatter I heard was woven into white noise, veiled in French. Quickly, I scrambled for conversation topics that could break our silence and found that I had absolutely nothing to say or ask. So I took a bite of quiche and listened to the moist cadence of my chewing instead.

On campus, so much of our conversations consist of getting on the same page. We get coffee to catch up, ask each other what’s new after sitting down for lunch together. There are the standard questions that can fill up at least an hour, sometimes even more. For acquaintances: What classes are you taking? Are you moving off next year? For closer friends: How was your day? Did your paper go all right? What are your aspirations in life? I’ve learned that I constantly have to explain myself—why I like the things that I like; why I am the way I am.

But even these questions dry up, and people don’t constantly generate new thoughts about the big things—politics, love, life. Even the most interesting conversations can only happen once or twice before everyone is basically on the same page. So when you spend most of your day with other people, the only thing that really changes from day to day is just that—the passing of the day.

This realization brought up some existential questions about friendship and companionship for me, questions that I’ve been thinking about since high school: What is friendship if it’s not having things to talk about? Is good conversation a symptom of friendship, or is it the cause? And if friends don’t have things to talk about all the time, what is companionship?

These were all pressing questions for me after graduation, after the pomp and the circumstance, when we all retreated to our own homes for the start of summer break. One morning, perhaps a week after break started, I sat at my desk and realized that, after repeating my litany of sentimental graduation spiels and acknowledging the commencement of “the rest of our lives,” I had absolutely nothing new to say. And repeating the old stuff to my friends just seemed trite. Everything I knew about everyone was old, and silence settled on my summer.

Since then, I have been painfully aware of silence—how it functions between me and my friends at home, the acquaintances I made during my first month at school, the housemates I got to know much better after a few quarters, my professors, strangers. Sometimes, it is a little awkward; sometimes, acquaintances are quick to fill it with words and laughter; but most of the time, I just let it settle. And when I do, I wonder whether the silence between me and this other person is indicative of a greater boredom with each other.

It’s not. Probably not, at least. Admittedly, in writing this article, I am being one-dimensional about friendship; I feel strange even trying to break down friendship into some formula or a set of qualities. It goes without saying that no two friendships are the same. In fact, finding the answer to any of these questions is probably not going to do much. Regardless, I think about this—at lunch, in the library, sitting in my room while my friend finishes her paper. Silence in friendship is prevalent, inconsistent, jarring. Perhaps my concerns about it just have to do with my stage in life now—in transit between two homes—my hometown and college; one I feel I’ve outgrown, and the other I feel I’ve barely grown into.

No matter my motivations, for the past few years I have been struggling to find an answer: What keeps people together, and makes them drift apart?

But perhaps the answer (or, at least, an answer) isn’t as elusive as I have made it out to be. Taking a break from writing this article, I decided to start a video chat with my friend from home. I logged on, and after the usual “How’s life?” spiels, the same silence settled between our screens. In conjunction with writing this article, I was just so painfully aware of it. I panicked—were we drifting apart?—but only for a moment. We have been friends for six years. I may not be learning much more about who she is at this point, but that’s because I know. I’ve known for years and, despite all the changes we’ve both experienced in college, she’s the same with me as she has been since freshman year of high school. What makes our friendship strong is not our personality or interests or interesting conversations—it’s the passage of time and the fact that, despite being thousands of miles away from each other, we are still sitting in front of a screen with each other, not talking at all, but just seeing each other.

There’s only so much you can learn about a person before the next thing you learn comes not from them, but from the time spent with them.

Kristin Lin is a second-year in the College majoring in political science.