I was never one to swoon over Jackie Kennedy. For all the sweetness of the Camelot myth, the realities that jumped from old newsreels—the reserved brunette shyly smiling at her husband, running after the babies and standing for photo ops defined by pastel dresses and drapes—made Jackie seem, well... weak. And what was with that voice? Even as she matured into a powerful dowager, Jackie didn't seem to have much to say, and when she did, it trickled out in a voice barely above a whisper. When I'd see her, I'd think, Give me a woman who knows how to-roar.
Then my friend, a Washington journalist who once covered the Kennedys, explained that I had missed the point—and Jackie's power. He recalled spending an afternoon with the first lady as she showed him the refurbished White House. "The whisper meant you had to lean in and listen closely," he said. He found her not so much charming as calculated. By the end of the visit, he realized he'd put more weight on her every word than he did on the blowsy talk that rushed from the mouths of many politicians on the Hill.
That's why I recently became intrigued with the idea of trying Jackie's way. What if I stopped shooting off words like buckshot and started really listening? For a weekend, I decided to open my ears by closing my mouth—well, sort of.
I couldn't fathom getting through a day without saying something, so I opted for modified silence. I sent myself on what Hillary Rodham Clinton would call a listening campaign. When with others, I would focus on their stories and opinions while staying quiet about my own. Given that I'd been doing a lot of talking at work, I was ready for the lessons a little listening could teach me.
Shutting my mouth has never been easy. My-friends could use many adjectives to describe me, but I doubt that the word quiet would turn up on their lists. Indeed, I must have completely missed the memo-in junior high that said girls should be quiet in class to be attractive to boys. Sure, I had the matching socks and hair bows (it was the South, after all), but I was always ready to-yell out an answer with the best of the XY-chromosomed set.
As I grew older and fell in with writers and journalists, the charge was to get my words in like a gunslinger—to be the first with a bon mot and the quickest with the witty aside. Quiet was for the boring and the frail.
In fact, a typical conversation between me and my friends would give a transcriptionist the heaves. How could anyone tell who said what with so many interjections? But as I sat in a café with my friend on my first listen-up night, I let her unspool her story about her work and loves. Rather than trying to be funny or reactionary as she told me about a newly train-wrecked relationship, I focused on what she was saying and weighed the advice I could give her to be most helpful.
That I felt I was being a better friend was not a surprise. The shocker was how much my new behavior made me feel in control of my own problems. (Whatever others may think, my true friends know that my life is held together with safety pins, Scotch tape and the glue of humor. When I come to the table ready to spill the story of my latest upheaval, they see past my grin and my wisecracks.) Indeed, as I went to meet one of my other girlfriends, I had worked myself into a frenzy over a recent attachment, a man with whom things had become irreparable. But sitting there, listening rather than talking, seemed to give an eye to my storm. "He's a fool," I finally told her. And yours is a fool, too, I thought to myself, realizing that much of what I'd said to her should be repeated to me. And somehow, by the time I left the café, the thought of spilling labored tales of him seemed like wasted breath.
Quiet, Night Two
The more startling lessons came in the presence of casual acquaintances and strangers. For years, my New Year's resolution has been to be more careful about what I say. "I have often regretted my speech, never my silence," said first century philosopher Publilius Syrus, a truth that should be posted at many a cocktail hour and company party. How many times had I found a story so funny or warmly intimate in the moment but simply self-destructive by the next morning, if not the next moment?
The following evening, I stepped into a salon of New York writers and saw my friend Bruce. At our last gathering, I had regaled him with details of a new affair. By the time I had finished talking, half the table, which was packed with people whose names I couldn't recall, had overheard more about me than strangers ever should. But this time, I focused on Bruce, letting him opine about everything from the presidential race to the machinations of love.
"How are things going?" he asked.
I paused for a few seconds, reminding my tongue of its place. "All is well," I said. "There's nothing really to tell."
My terseness amazed even me. Who knew it could be done? Who knew I wouldn't feel boring or lame, but enigmatic and alluring? And my silences offered me not only protection but a sensation of power as well.
The next evening, I attended a reception to honor the outgoing president of my alma mater. The event was held in a private club resplendent with rococo ceilings, expensive Indian rugs and antique furniture. As I moved to leave, I bumped into a woman I knew slightly. We had pledged the same sorority in college, but she had graduated before I joined. All I had heard about her was that she was fierce—icy wit, exacting demeanor, flawless beauty. In short, she was someone who scared me. Nearly a decade later, at first glance, little seemed to have changed, with her plummy vowels and ebony skin as inky and smooth as the black pashmina scarf that was around her shoulders.
I somehow found myself with her in an exquisite antechamber. As I listened, settled into an oak-armed chair, certain realizations crystallized. I not only heard more in her words more clearly, as if she were speaking in Dolby sound, but I also saw her in sharper, more detailed lines. How different this would be under normal circumstances, I thought. For so long, I had equated talking with having a presence—forcing myself to speak up in meetings, trying to coax a laugh out of a new acquaintance—that I would have barely heard what she was saying. Instead, I would have been looking for places to make my arguments, cut off her sentences to start mine and slice in with my jokes, making sure I had made an impression.
Again, listening made me feel like an expert, a master strategist. But that description must come with a caveat. I didn't exert power over my companion or wrongly take something from her. If anything, I felt masterful because I was able to give more to her and to myself. Whereas my words and demeanor might have normally reflected my anxiety about her—an anxiety borne not of knowing her but of my preconceptions of her—I was now able to draw her out with my questions and silences. I allowed myself to let her in. And so she shared her worries and insecurities—she was in the wrong job and she questioned whether she'd ever find true love or have to settle, the way she saw many a peer in her thirties settling, with someone more a stranger than a soul mate. By the time we parted on a drizzle-dampened street, she had moved into the category of likely friend.
What Jackie Knew
The effects of listening even spilled over into my time alone. As I walked through my neighborhood to a café, I took in my surroundings: A lady getting her toddler into his coat. Teen girls drinking pop and smoking as boys threw a football outside their high school. The buzz of the meat slicer as I walked past the butcher. The way the air vibrated as the street crew jackhammered the ground four blocks up.
New York City has a way of making you retreat into your head, the better to avoid the crazies. But not detaching from the world around me meant that my mind didn't bob along, just replaying my day. Rather, my thoughts were immediate and present, a vacation into the worlds of others. By the time I reached the café, I wasn't like a puppy with a chew toy, agitating myself by gnawing some trivial thing-to death. Instead, I felt in the moment, at rest.
I'm not sure how possible it is to undo one's essential nature. I like my zingers, my giggling, my gossip. But in the space of a weekend, I felt a little older, if only because I felt a little wiser. I certainly won't look askance at the quiet ones anymore. Well, that's not true. I'm sure I'll catch myself wondering, Are they just shy wallflowers? Or are they smart cookies who've figured out what Jackie knew so well: Silence isn't golden. It's power.