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Nil by mouth for 48 hours

Wednesday 17th September 2014

I’m on a steamy bus bound from Newtown, wedged between a slimy window and bald man decked out in ’80s leisurewear. I’m also over halfway through a weekend of not speaking, as part of a social experiment that made my dad mutter darkly about arts degrees.

So far the experience has only been mildly inconvenient, but now my stop’s approaching and though I’ve made all the classic gestures associated with wanting to get off a bus, the guy next to me isn’t showing any signs of letting me up. It is with a resigned detachment that I realise I’m going to have to cough in this man’s face to make him move.

A photo of Louise Burston looking pensive on a park bench
Louise Burston: Nil by mouth for 48 hours

Photo: Elle Hunt

The purpose of going a weekend without speaking was to determine whether digital methods of communication such as texting would be as functional and socially satisfying as conversing in person. I expected the weekend to involve a lot of Facebook chat, a few emails, and no dramas.

As the 48 hours approached, I found myself longing for the relief of not having to talk to anyone – a reprieve from elevator small talk and half-hearted attempts at barista banter.

READ: Are we using social media to talk to ourself more than to other people? Henry Cooke asks what we talk about when we talk to ourselves.

I initially wanted to try not speaking for a week, but my employers consider my ability to vocalise to be invaluable and did not approve of the plan. (It’s nice to be appreciated.) Though the vast majority of my work is done on the computer, my boss explained that not being able to speak to my team might make them feel uncomfortable.

Out of interest I logged every instance in which I spoke at work for two days and it makes for embarrassing reading. The conversations which related to work were few and far between in a trivial stew that included an argument about the best way to poach eggs and my complaints about Akon’s “booty bonanza” song being stuck in my head.

A picture of Louise Burston at work at a computer wearing headphones
“My employers consider my ability to vocalise to be invaluable” – even if it’s just about Akon

Photo:Elle Hunt

The first few hours of not speaking on Friday night coincided with a party. I only mention this because parties in Wellington are now so infrequent that they’re worth mentioning. (If you disagree, I regret to inform you that those were in fact intimate drinks. It isn’t a party until someone vomits into a dehumidifier. Which may be why so few people are prepared to host parties any more.)

The affair in question was a friend’s prom-themed birthday celebration, which is how I found myself standing in the rain, wearing a giant green retro dress, trying to remember where her house is. My typical strategy is to ring someone and beg for help (refusing to acquire a smartphone sometimes casts me in the role of damsel in geographical distress), but not speaking barred me from doing so.

After sending out a few cries for help via text I decided to creep around the general vicinity of the party, my poufy satin sleeves drooping in the rain, and peer into windows in the hope of stumbling upon my destination. This actually worked.

I’d thought that my not speaking in social situations would be construed as mysterious and alluring, as Prince Eric found Ariel in The Little Mermaid

Once at the party I had to rely on friends to give me and my silence some context to people I didn’t know. I wasn’t expecting any grand introductions, but there’s something quite bleak about having your existence explained away as “This is Louise. She isn’t speaking at the moment. She works in an office.”

I’d thought that my not speaking in social situations would be construed as mysterious and alluring, as Prince Eric found Ariel in The Little Mermaid. A friend of mine disagreed vehemently. “If I met you at a party and you weren’t speaking I would hate you, Louise.” But we were both wrong, with most strangers treating me like a pet.

“Are you thirsty, girl? Do you want a drink?”

“I think she wants to go outside.”

“She’s making a T shape... Tinder? Do you want Tinder, Louise?”

“Oh, she wants the toilet!”

By the end of the night it was clear that this weekend would not be the blissful retreat I was hoping for. Communicating with people was simple enough if they asked questions which could be answered with a nod or shake of the head, but as soon as the conversation became complicated I would have to resort to crude mime.

A picture of Louise Burston at a cafe holding a notebook
“I was able to hold long and reasonably complex one-sided conversations with my close friends”

Photo: Elle Hunt 

My use of Facebook chat the following day was industrious, and I basked in the glow of being understood by those I was talking to. I tried to chat with my housemates while sitting in the lounge with them, but their conversation leapt along too quickly for my typing to keep up with. I was surprised to find that being wrongly interpreted by people was almost as frustrating as not being understood at all. When a kind friend confidently ordered a flat white on my behalf, I stomped in denial and resolutely pointed to ‘long black’ on the menu.

But I was able to hold long and reasonably complex one-sided conversations with my close friends, who know me well enough to predict what my response to anything they said might be. These encounters made me feel appreciated and understood, if deeply uneasy about my own predictability.

“So I have a mutual friend with that gym instructor you have a crush on”

*smiles. claps. fans self. communicates through a series of gestures that the man in question may be gay*

“Yeah, I was going to just ask my mate whether he was straight and single, then get his number for you, but I think you'd prefer to swoon over him for a while and figure it out on your own.”

*thinks. nods*

When 10pm struck, I quickly reasserted my humanity by talking about boys and the upcoming election

“At least it gets you to the gym.”

On Sunday night, with an hour to go until being allowed to talk again, I was sitting in the lounge with my housemates and occasionally contributing to their conversation with a meow, which I’d come increasingly to rely on over the weekend. (As it turns out, ‘meow’ has a variety of possible inflections and interpretations.) But when 10pm struck, I quickly reasserted my humanity by talking about boys and the upcoming election, and utilising my opposable thumbs to paint my nails. The thought of what strategies I might have resorted to in a week of not speaking makes me decidedly uneasy.

Attracting the attention of a stranger on a bus by coughing on them is an uncomfortable experience, but it was nothing compared to sitting through conversations that I really wanted to contribute to. The weekend of silence taught me that communication in the digital sphere can be every bit as satisfying as talking to someone in person, and that not being able to join in on verbal conversations can turn me into a crotchety mess.  Speaking makes daily life a lot easier, but I didn’t realise how necessary it is for my happiness.

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