When you’re a little kid, you have an egocentric view of the world. The things that happen around you are things that you influence. You make something, you move something, you get something out or you put it away. You imagine yourself to be the sole motivating force for the universe, and it takes some developmental growth to be able to recognize that other people do things for reasons that make sense to them but that you’ll probably not quite ever know.
So when the people around you ignore you, or don’t want to be with you, you imagine that it’s your fault. You imagine that there’s something you’ve done—something you ARE—that’s made them not want to be with you. You search through the silence for some clues to what you could do differently, even as nothing that you try to do makes any change at all.
And that understanding of the world, that it’s our own flaws that make other people not respond to us, is pretty persistent. We know that’s not true (well, at least not always true), but it still feels true, it runs straight through those channels that were cut into us from childhood onward.
As adults, we’re left to interpret silences in a lot of different ways. We apply for jobs, we send our work off for review, we put our profiles onto dating sites, we send our work component to our colleagues. And then we wait.
And as we wait, we don’t just go into power-save mode. We keep thinking. Why am I not hearing? Should I do something else? Should I send a reminder, or would I be a pest? Should I assume it’s gone cold after a certain number of days? Have I done something wrong? If we got information, we could act on it, but the absence of information demands that we create our own. The fact that it’s almost certainly wrong doesn’t matter. It feels better than the void.
I want to differentiate here between two phenomena that are related and yet have important distinctions: loneliness and exile. We can be lonely temporarily or permanently. We can be lonely for reasons that have nothing to do with us, after someone dies or moves away. Exile is different; it’s the fact of others’ decisions to not have you any longer, to not associate with you, to exclude you from membership. The emotional states feel similar, but their implications are radically different. In exile, you have no recourse, no options, no agency. It wasn’t an accident.
When I was excluded from academic life twenty-five years ago (and as Marc Bousquet accurately puts it, the PhD is now rightly understood as the conclusion of an academic career, not its beginning), it was a form of exile. It was a community to whom I had dedicated my allegiance, which had then determined that I was not desirable. When I send a manuscript to a literary agency, never to be responded to again, it’s a form of exile. It’s another community to which I would like to dedicate my allegiance, which has determined that I am not desirable.
The more we aspire to, the greater the depth and diversity of exile we invoke. If we grew up imagining ourselves fundamentally flawed, wretched, unwantable, then those are the interpretive stories we employ every time we offer ourselves to the world in a new way, only to be met once again with silence.
You can help with this, though. If you advertise a position in your company, acknowledge every single person who applies. If you invite submittals of creative work to your fellowship or gallery or publishing house or conference, acknowledge every single person who applies. Tell them what the schedule is, when they should expect to hear about next steps and what those next steps will be. Don’t leave them to imagine, for weeks, or months. Tell them how many applicants you’ve had, so that they know the odds.
If you’re working with colleagues on a complex project, acknowledge the work they send you, let them know whether it needs revision or re-thinking. If you’re overwhelmed and won’t be able to use it for a few days, one sentence in an email is enough to communicate that. If you’ve promised work on Wednesday and now won’t be able to get to it until Friday, tell us that on Tuesday, and keep us apprised of how things are going.
We can frame all of these simple actions in terms of workplace professionalism, of organizational courtesy. But by doing so, we diminish their weight. They’re more important than that. There are people on the other side of the silence who are desperate, who are anguished, who need to believe that they aren’t irretrievable. You can offer comfort, if you want. You just have to think about it.