25 December 2013

Midwest Silence

I didn't go to Michigan this year for Christmas. Instead, I watched Alexander Payne's new film, Nebraska.

It wasn't a planned substitution. But as soon as I saw those leaning little frame houses and their careless furniture and their lumpy, extraordinarily real-looking people, I thought: well, here I am. Home.  

I also recognized a kind of silence. A running joke that blossoms into an important force in the emotional action of the film is the fathomless reticence of elderly father Woody. (Five seconds later I look back on the last sentence to find my fingers have substituted resonance for that noun. Well, yes.) He's no anomaly, we learn; this is simply the make of the men in the family and in the small Nebraska town they're from. Their silence is produced not so much by a stiff upper lip as by a state of low-level bewilderment at the emotional and social duties the world has been trying to rouse them to all their lives. Literally and economically, they inhabit a rough landscape. Isn't their survival within the laws of the land enough?

The women, though: they talk. Some, such as the mother, are ebullient monsters on the model of The Night of the Hunter's Icey Spoon—masters of gossip that appears to pour out so spontaneously as to preclude any suspicion of malevolence. Others are warm and kind or loudly demanding, but as far as the vocabulary of this and perhaps the main of American film is concerned, taciturn lacks a feminine form.

It should be uncontroversial to note that silence is gendered. This has been the basis for many a sitcom and standup act. The women: why, they never shut up. The men: how impossible to get them to utter a feeling. Certainly, a man can be a great talker and draw no criticism for that—consider the livelihood of those very comics, after all—and very talkative women can be condemned as annoyances or worse.

But a woman inclined to silence is something odd. I know, because I am one. It has happened that even when I think I have been practically dominating the conversation on a given evening, it will come back to me later that I have been pegged as the quiet one. People have picked at me for this trait throughout most of my life—not constantly, but regularly enough. (Of course, there's nothing more likely to drive a quiet person deeper into silence than the accusation that she is too close-mouthed.)

The incident that stands out most is this: I was waiting tables. The restaurant was rather busy, and I was carrying a bowl of soup; ahead of me passing from the kitchen to the dining room was a veteran waiter named Ali, a middle-aged man with a veneer of deliberate sweetness and formality brittlely coating some deep frustration with the world. Perhaps having forgotten something, Ali stopped short and whirled around in the other direction; in a flash we collided. The soup splashed dramatically over his crisp white shirt and black vest.

I gaped and apologized, even if I'd been splattered too and, had we been on the road, he'd clearly have been found at fault for the accident. But Ali would not be placated. Despite his civility I had never felt he liked me, and now he disburdened himself of the offense my very existence caused him.

"Why did you do this!" he shouted, eyes flashing. "What is wrong with you! You go around and don't even say anything. You never talk, you are not even human!"

I have received this damning criticism mostly, now I think of it, from older men trying to correct my behavior or badger me into flattering them—though also from bosses and even, once, from a subordinate. When I try mentally to substitute a similarly quiet man into situations like these, I simply cannot see him drawing as much disapproval, or even any particular notice. The women in his life might sigh over his uncommunicative nature, but they'd likely lump him in with the rest of his sex. As long as a man does more than grunt he will probably not fall too far beyond the pale of socially acceptable behavior.

I have sat uncomfortably through conversations in which female friends lamented the quiet men in their lives, framing their silence as being explicitly a male thing and even a rather unenlightened male thing; surely a guy more comfortable with the feminine mode of experience would lapse naturally into long conversations about his and everyone's feelings. To someone of this mind, talk is the glue that binds people together; neglect it and you float alone somewhere away from the human planet, probably judging all the voices that drift your way. If your mouth is not busy with something inoffensive, your mind is probably busy with something bad. 

Quiet guys anchored the sighs of many '60s girl-group hits, and they apparently retain their dreaminess today. Some comparative Google results:

"He's shy": About 122,000,000 results. The first page is filled with tips for women on reading the body language of the shy man and, above all, figuring out whether he likes them. Bits of pop culture such as The Pointer Sisters' "He's So Shy" and One Direction fan fiction appear, too. Shy men are fascinating puzzles to be carefully and sensitively decoded—when they're ready, of course.

"She's shy": About 30 thousand fewer results. On the first page here we also find tips for guys on dating shy women, but the focus is a little different. The goal is not to understand and decode but to meet and "score" shy girls. (There's also a link to a page of tips on managing your shy daughter's behavior.) Pop-culture symbols of female shyness are absent. Is a man's silence a deep pool to stare into, a woman's a closed door to bang against?

Part of what makes my several homes feel like home for me is that when I am there this sense of gender variance seems to fade. My girlfriend is, if anything, even more inclined toward stillness than I, and I even worry sometimes that I annoy her by gabbing on about inconsequential things. At those times I fear that I'm lapsing into my mother's habit of space-filling chatter, which would, like a rhetorical question, seem to require no answer. Until it turns out that it does, and she's wounded, and I'm unjustly annoyed.

Unfortunately for her, she's pretty well alone in this tendency among our family. My grandmother is another quiet woman; my grandfathers, uncle, cousins, and father are all of this stoic Midwestern breed in varying proportions. To make my uncle laugh is a cause for pride, for I know that it takes some substantial force to break the silence. I do not mean to give the impression that we all sit around the turkey chewing wordlessly, but we most of us speak when we have something particular to say, not to be congenial.

Many of the silences in Nebraska are heavy with pathos. Had Woody been able to summon a definite opinion into words more often, he'd likely be happier with his life. However often I've cast wistful thoughts in the direction of monastic orders who hold it as a requirement for holy living, silence in itself is surely not a virtue. Certainly it can lead to missed connections, to regrets. But when I consider it as a trait I share with a larger Midwestern type of spirit, silence does not feel so lonely after all.