The Silence Between the Notes

Have you ever been to a gathering wherein somebody strikes some kind of humor cord and says/does something that gets the group roaring, but then ruins it by making the story, joke, or stunt go on far longer than it should have? To the point it becomes stale, predictable, annoying, and of course unfunny? Can’t you just feel the “entertainer” milking the room for more laughs, more clapping, more attention? Isn’t it pathetic? Wouldn’t it have been much better if that person had just stopped about five minutes ago, when the laughter was filling the room, instead of now, when half the room has moved on, and the half still laughing is doing so mostly out of nervous politeness?

I think you know this person. And the term “quit while you’re ahead” means nothing to them.
Nor do any of the following proverbs which, though slightly different on the surface do in fact advise the same thing:
Brevity is the soul of wit.”
It is the silence between the notes that makes the music.”
The space between the bars keeps the tiger in.
Bow out gracefully.”
I am sure you sense the pattern now, and can think of even more examples of this sentiment. That sentiment being one of perfectly timed restraint.
Believe it or not, my friends consider me quite a funny person at times. This may come as a shock to some of you, because you may not be able to imagine me working a room for laughs. And you would be correct. I never work a room for laughs. I don’t say things that are intended to be funny or witty every chance I get, and even when I do, I say them and leave it at that. If a whole room is laughing at something I say, I don’t feel the need to keep saying it, or adding on to it to get even more laughs. Not that I have never went on a sustained presentation that others found continuously amusing, but in those cases the story or stunt had on obvious beginning, middle and end. People laughed at the journey. But in most cases, I am content with the knowledge that at a given moment, I made several people laugh and that a moment in the future will come when I do so again.
Even though I could probably coax more laughs out of whatever group of people I find laughing at my antics, hitting them over the head with how funny I am being feels like an insult to the wondrous, mysterious honor one receives when they make people laugh on purpose. No, it’s the down time of quiet simplicity or quasi-stoicism that takes place between the amusing moments that makes the laughs more special. That goes for professional entertainers as well. Few comedians are more annoying than the ones who are one constant, loud, drilling scream of joke.
Put another way, the secret to being funny is being willing to sometimes not be funny. To have an “off” setting. Even most of the time, I am not funny to most people. And because I embrace the times when nobody is laughing, and I am not trying to make them do so, I get more out of the times when I am going for the occasional laugh.
Not that this applies only to humor and wit. I think one of the essential ingredients to any kind of success is to not be “on” all of the damn time. By that I don’t mean making a mistake, or being imperfect in your efforts, which will happen to everyone. I mean a total cessation of effort. Whatever you enjoy, create, or desire cannot take up 100% of your focus. You can’t always be selling, advocating, relieving or whatever. Your success in any given endeavor is directly proportional to how willing you are to spend time not being/doing/saying whatever it is that drives you.
Want to be funny? Take time to be serious. Do you want people to be respectful to your position? Throw in some humor sometimes. Want to be generous? You’ll have to learn to be selfish at times.
The list could go on forever, but it doesn’t need to in order to make my point, which is to know what you like, work to get it, but be willing to engage in times when you don’t have it. Not due to circumstances or luck, but due to your own conscious desire to refrain from that which you seek. You’ll be better off for it the next time you actively seek what you want.
Do you ever choose to not engage in something, to create that “space between the bars”? 


  1. I do it all the time.

    I love having back-and-forths with people. A good discussion is always nice, but I have limits. At times, I choose not to engage in it. Going deeper sometimes is really tiring and you just want people to accept that though you have an opinion on something, you don't exactly want to talk about it right now.

    You need to know what's authentic for you at the moment and others have to respect that.

    Great post!

  2. Thanks Mehnaz! And yes, being authentic is key. Though even being authentic can be overdone if one is constantly public about it. But is one is authentic, they shouldn't have to be so in a public way all the time, should they? Glad you enjoyed the post.

  3. It's true: You can't always be “on.” It not only drains your own energy, it can make you an unwelcome addition to any gathering, even when you're just passing through.

    I always wonder about the people who tell excruciatingly long stories or jokes. Are they just not sensitive to their audience's mood, or do they just not care?

    Speaking of authentic as in Mehnaz's comment: As one of my college profs liked to say, “If you go around shouting 'I'm free, I'm free!' you aren't, really.”

    I think it's the same thing with being authentic. You either are or you aren't. Going around trying to prove your authenticity can be self-defeating.

    Now, for the actual question you asked about disengaging oneself from the situation…large social gatherings popped into mind, perhaps because of your introvert/extrovert dating tips I read today.

    I think I default to being more of a listener when I'm around more than a handful of people, though it also depends on the setting and what's going on. People have a lot to say. I have a lot to think. I don't always articulate what I'm feeling outside of my own head. I'm not sure if that's choosing NOT to engage in something or just plain not engaging without my own volition, but I do enjoy the space between the bars. There's a whole lot going on in there.

    I have noticed that one has to be engaged enough to give the right nonverbal cues so the talkers know you're still listening. 🙂

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