I’ve never been comfortable with silence. I strike up conversations with strangers on long haul planes. I fill blank spaces with empty small talk. I condense my experiences into conversation fodder. I misquote idioms. I overshare with new acquaintances and scare off any possibility of friendship. I say things I don’t agree with, but then staunchly defend. Anything to avoid the awkwardness of not talking.
I always wanted to be one of those minimalist speakers who only utters thoughtful sentiments. The kind of person that others respect and listen to. Instead, I found myself as the stuttering intern, the endlessly blabbering friend, or the colleague that couldn’t time her input in meetings.
Video chats are hazardous. Etiquette seems to escape me completely. I interrupt, apologise, purse my lips in embarrassment. Sometimes, I refuse to repeat myself. I find writing an easier way to express myself. A more authentic version because my mouth blurts out surprising things with my brain a beat behind. That, and I’m officially tongue tied. It was confirmed by a dentist friend at university. Before that, I never knew it was a medical condition – it was just a saying that occasionally fit.
At twenty four, I started scuba diving. It was the first time I felt free from the compulsion to speak. With a respirator in my mouth, it wasn’t physically possible. All I could do underwater was focus on my breathing and surroundings. Inhale. Check my oxygen gauge. Exhale. Follow the fish. Inhale. Drift over the coral. Exhale. Fall deeper as the bubbles slowly rise. It was my first glimpse into meditation.
Until now, meditation had never appealed to me. I remember attending a session in school and being asked to leave as I got the giggles. I tried again by doing yoga in London, but I didn’t enjoy the breathing and spiritual side. I wanted to workout in a more competitive way.
This year, I feel differently. Perhaps it is because I’m approaching thirty, or maybe it’s because I am living abroad. I am being more selective with how I spend my time and I no longer suffer from FOMO as I did in my early twenties. I understand the transience of friendships as an expat. As a teacher, I speak less to encourage my students to speak more, and my voice has become something to preserve so I’m less inclined to chat needlessly.
As an extrovert, coming to terms with my newfound solitude has been hard. At first, I worried that I was becoming selfish or even depressed, yet the opposite was true. I’m far more relaxed and content now that I only attend events I want to go to. I started being less concerned about what others thought. I stopped drinking for a month. I started saving. More importantly, I realised that I didn’t owe my time to anyone else, and that I should spend it like a currency on those who matter most.
Of course, I do still have friends and see them for drinks, dinners and days out, but I don’t give away all my free time now. Before, I could never say no. Giving up social media has helped alleviate the pressure. I can’t see everything that is going on in my social circles, so I can instead focus on making more meaningful connections. Social gatherings are no longer diluted into one picture on Instagram, and catching up is no longer a distant ‘like’ on a post.
Checking in has become an important weekly ritual. Solo treks through the jungle, immersed only in the sounds. Swimming and hearing nothing but the pressure of the water. Sitting in a yoga class and not talking, not thinking, being present. Sitting down and watching my fingers write thoughts I hadn’t yet articulated.
This new outlook has taken me by surprise, but maybe it’s for the best. Especially if you end up sitting next to me on a plane!