“Rääkimine hõbe, vaikimine kuld.”
Friday, 18 December 2020 19:00
Estonian Life No. 50/51 2020 - Vincent Teetsov
Of all vanasõnad
(proverbs or sayings) out there in the Estonian language, this one is very common. It's found itself on the cover of a book by Ivo Juurvee, about the protection of state secrets in the first era of independent Estonia. In an English language context, “Silence is Golden” is also common. It was a B-Side for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and became a knockout pop hit in 1967 for The Tremeloes. A bit funny considering the title.
The most direct English translation of the phrase is said to be first displayed in the 1830s by Scottish writer and philosopher Thomas Carlyle in his novel Sartor Resartus
. Carlyle said “As the Swiss Inscription says: Sprecfien ist silbern, Schweigen ist golden
(Speech is silver, Silence is golden); or as I might rather express it: Speech is of Time, Silence is of Eternity.”
Evidently, this saying, or at least the latter part, is shared across cultures. But is there something uniquely Estonian about this concept of measured verbal communication?
Estonians, along with Finns and other Nordic people, are well-known for their comfort with quiet. There's no such thing as an “awkward silence”, as we often hear mentioned in films, TV, and maybe even our own conversations. In North America, we've come to dread what is implied by silence. Disapproval. Contempt. Judgment.
One possible explanation for cultural quiet is climate. If you happen to see a friend on the street and do a “stop and chat”, you're less likely to linger if it's brisk outside. It's reason enough to get to the point and keep moving with your arms clenched against your sides for warmth. What words are used will be uttered with smaller mouth shapes, creating pronunciation variations as time goes by. In a balmy place, you can stay out as long as you like. Volume, movement, and boisterous facial expressions all play their part.
But then there is silence indoors, too. Maybe words are withheld unless they are deemed truly valuable to the recipient. Silence then becomes like precious gold coins that we give to strangers. Why smile at someone in a store if that smile isn't real? Why say “have a nice day!” if you truly don't hope their day is a nice one? I distinctly recall conducting an entire transaction at a store in Tallinn's vanalinn
without so much as a peep. Head nods and muted grunts were enough to convey “hello”, “the total is 20 Euros”, “debit please”, “thank you”, and “goodbye.” In our heads, it was already established that I wanted to purchase something, that they could sell it, and that I could pay. Seamless.
Silence is the buffer between introductions and trusting another person. When your peers are evaluated for their trustworthiness, they are allowed to know things that are private. If you are spoken to, you must have earned it. Friends are won, not acquired freely.
However, silence is not a means unto itself. Rather, it's a means to the end of listening, which makes conversations work better. It means we're opening our wavelengths for contemplation and purposeful responses. It's quite fitting then that one recent children's ESL (that is, Estonian as a Second Language) program has been titled Rääkimine hõbe, kuulamine kuld
(“Talking is silver, listening is gold”). Just as it's helpful for our minds when learning a new language, loosening up and listening is beneficial to social situations, too.
This saying shouldn't be seen as glossing over an entire exuberant, extroverted segment of the Estonian population. Yet, it shows that even the biggest fans of conversation can relish in moments of silence.
Written by Vincent Teetsov