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Parallel play: Get over the ‘awkward’ and socialize in silence

(Photo by Vidar Nordli Mathisen)
LISTEN: Get over the 'awkward silence' and socialize in silence

Most humans are afraid of silence. We listen to music when we shower, and podcasts while we run. We watch TV while we eat. When a conversation briefly lulls, we call it “awkward silence” and fill it in with bits of unnecessary chatter. I’ve had two boyfriends who couldn’t fall asleep without the fan on.

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But silence is what New York City-based journalist Greta Moran craves. But not necessarily alone. She wrote an article for The Cut called “The Intimacy of Socializing in Silence.”

“In recent years I’ve had a growing appreciation for quiet and ownership over how important it is in my life,” Moran said. “The article is about this idea called ‘parallel play,’ which is a concept in childhood psychology. When children are around two or three they learn to play adjacent to each other but without interacting. So my idea is that it’s a form of interaction and it can be really intimate and fulfilling to just socialize alongside someone without talking.”

Some of Moran’s favorite adult parallel play activities include long drives, doing a crossword puzzle, reading side-by-side, and hiking. But if you’re not going to talk, why not just hang out alone?

“I think it really is different than hanging out just on your own,” she said. “There’s a lot of trust that can be built between someone when you’re just being with them without talking. For example, I think a lot of people experience what I might be describing when they have a roommate. Some roommate situations can be so intimate because you can observe someone’s whole routine, what they do right before bed, their morning rituals, and often without a lot of communication. I think that sort of side-by-side existence can be an intentional form of socializing and is a really great way to get to know someone.”

Parallel play

I have thought about this in my own life. Sometimes when I hike, I don’t want to talk much so I can take in the beauty around me and not worry about taking a break from making conversation. But don’t know how to present the idea to a friend. Also, is it complete silence, or can you talk a little?

“I’m not very hard and fast when it comes to creating rules around parallel play,” Moran said. “I think it’s best when it happens more naturally. A lot of times people respond really well when I try and explain it. For me, as someone who is pretty introverted, it’s been empowering that I can just set the terms of my social engagements and people usually respond well. I don’t need to pretend that I’m completely chill in every socializing situation. I can leave parties early if I want to and no one really cares.”

“And I think a lot of people, myself included, used to feel like I had to fit in with a very narrow standard for how to socialize,” she said. “I think the world is really designed for extroverts and a lot of our most common social activities are not suited for people who don’t want to be talking all the time.”

As an introvert, nonstop conversation can feel exhausting for Moran. But it can also be exhausting for me, an extrovert. I think if our culture felt more comfortable with silence we would welcome a lot more of it into our lives.

“There can be this pressure to continually add to the conversation or think of something to fill in the gaps,” she said. “Removing that pressure for me eases a lot of tension and just feels like a more natural way of existing with someone. Of course, I like talking to people as well, but both are really great ways of socializing.”

I like the concept as well, but I honestly still don’t feel completely comfortable presenting the idea to someone else. Moran says using the term “parallel play” is helpful because then you’re experiencing a concept instead of just telling your friends to keep it down.

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