As a rookie reporter for the student-run newspaper when I was studying journalism at Brigham Young University, I learned a lot of useful reporting skills. For example, I learned that Robert Redford does not want to be bothered by a nervous cub reporter when he’s traveling (yes, I did timidly attempt to set up an interview with him regarding something or other going on at Sundance).
I learned that waiting to start a story until midnight the day before it’s due is probably not a good idea, and you’re going to end up interviewing your roommates and throwing together a hard-hitting piece about which froyo shop is the best in town.
But probably the most important thing I learned is that it’s OK – desirable even – to sit through the silence. Reporters ask a lot of questions, and sometimes the person being interviewed has an answer right away, and the conversation flows naturally. But other times, a question will be asked, and there’s just silence.
Or there will be a quick, flippant answer given with no real substance, and the reporter will be tempted to just take it and move on. But every reporter knows that if they just wait for a second or two – or 10 or 20 – and just sit with the quiet that follows such an answer, a gold mine awaits. If we don’t rush in to brush over whatever is brewing, it’s after that silence some of the best answers will come.
It’s human nature to jump in with chatter to fill that vacuum. We can’t stand the awkwardness. We can’t stand the feeling of “I should be doing something else with this moment.” This is true both in interviews and in life.
Some of my kids have lately been pushing back against what they call Logan and my “Nazi-like restrictions” on their smartphones. We give them limits for how much time they can spend on certain apps each day like Pinterest, Instagram and podcasts. It seems an inhuman injustice to them that they can’t fill their heads constantly with noise-noise-noise-pictures-noise.
The other night, Lucy and George both requested more time to listen to podcasts while they completed some activity before heading to bed. Often, we’ll just let them have the extra time and be done with it. But on this particular night, I stopped and thought for a minute.
“There will be times in your lives when you’re going to have to cope, or soothe yourself, or get through some mundane chore, and you won’t have your phone to turn to,” I said. “Better to start training yourself now than get to that point and be absolutely miserable because you don’t know how to function without something stimulating your eyes or your ears.”
“We do know how to do that,” Lucy said.
“Then prove it,” I replied. “Show me right now, in these 15 minutes before going to bed, that you can do this boring task without needing your phone to get you through it.”
George protested a little before shrugging his shoulders and heading to bed. Lucy gave me a top-tier teenager eye roll and wandered upstairs. In the end, she went to the bedroom she shares with her sister and asked her to read to her while she finished up her project. I didn’t mind. Human connection trumps digital connection any day.
As a podcast lover myself, I am often guilty of filling the silence with noise. I can hardly chop an onion for dinner without listening to some witty banter on “This American Life” or scaring myself to death with a true crime podcast.
It seems to be the way we do things in this day and age: Fill the silence, dull the boredom, minimize the discomfort of being alone with our thoughts. I definitely think there’s a time and a place for all of that. But just like in journalism, it’s in the silence that some of our best ideas come; when inspiration strikes; when epiphanies light upon our minds; when calm and connection come into the chaos.
I can’t say I blame Robert Redford for denying my interview request all those years ago. Like all of us, maybe he just needed a little peace and quiet.
Julia Ditto shares her life with her husband, six children and a random menagerie of farm animals in Spokane Valley. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.