NO DEAD AIR

Boston5-1977

16 November 2021

 In my Senior year in high school, for a Communications elective, I selected a Drama class. It was a class about how to perform, but really more a Speech class using scripts for Broadway plays. It turned out to be fun.

   Although I was a Senior, I was barely sixteen. I liked girls, but neither my mind nor my body was much interested in (or even aware of) romance or lust. Therefore, when I picked out some dialogue to read with a partner, her response was surprising. I don’t remember what play I picked. I suppose the dialogue was “sexy” – by 1950s standards – but when she read a little of it, she exclaimed, “I’m not reading that with anybody!” We picked another play for our presentation before the class.

   Well, that’s just an aside. What I really want to talk about is a lesson I learned in the class. Let me explain:  I guess when I was reading in class, I tended to read with the presumed, or hoped-for, reaction in mind. If I read a funny line, or a thoughtful one, I would pause briefly – to wait for the “audience response.” My teacher made it clear that was not how it was done. Don’t worry about the audience; just keep the dialogue moving. He probably didn’t use the term “dead air,” as used nowadays, but that was the idea. Keep it moving, keep it moving; don’t allow any breaks in the presentation. There shouldn’t be any “dead air.”

   I suppose that “dead air” fear is one of the reasons for “laugh tracks” on television comedy shows, the other being to make the audience believe that something funny just happened. On stage in real time, good actors know that there are lots of techniques one can use that keep the pace fast, but make the most of the lines – facial looks, body language, and voice inflections. I suppose I learned some of that for my first (and only) big role in a college stage production, for which I was nominated as “best supporting actor.”[1] It was my antics accompanying the words that drew the favorable attention.

 ***

   I think it’s taken most of 65 years for me to understand that the “dead air” principle dominates most human discourse. I’ve often felt uncomfortable in group conversations, even with close friends or family, because the action always moves too quickly for me. People talk nonstop, with no break – no “dead air” – between one discourser and the next. Often, what one person says has nothing to do with the previous narrator; the third is likely on a different topic, as well. Nobody but me has ever seemed to mind, and the exchanges aren’t meant to be remembered. If an incident or a funny story sticks in your mind, it is serendipitous.

   I’ve had two problems with this mode of interaction. First, it took me a long time to figure out that nobody (but me) thought it was rude to essentially “hijack” the conversation at any point. Why not talk a bit about what was just said, before moving on to the next topic? But this wasn’t about discussion; it was free verse.

   Second, I really wasn’t fast enough to enter the fray; I seemed to need to wait for that break – that bit of “dead air” –  that never came. I couldn’t (as people have been feeling for several hundred years, at least) slip a word in edgewise. I often felt vaguely frustrated, even after a general good time with friends.

   I’ve done better in later years, as I learned the difference between conversing and communicating. Conversing – shooting the breeze – is an important part of human interaction. Its fast pace defies “dead air.” It never gives a pause a chance to interrupt the flow. My reactions are still a little slow to fully enter into the melee, but I’ve improved.

   Communication, on the other hand, is a rarity, and operates on different principles than does conversation. Few of us are lucky enough to have more than one or two people in our entire lives with whom we can really communicate. Communication takes time. Sentences are built on, thoughts are completed. There is no worry about “dead air” – in fact, it is necessary if we are going to be quick to hear, but slow to speak.[2] I think everybody needs a sounding board, sometimes as the sounder and sometimes as the soundee.

   For me, among the saddest and hardest parts of growing old has been – through death and disability – losing my few communicators. Family and friends are great – and I’m happy to still have them – but they don’t fill all my discussion desires. It can be lonely.

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[1] I didn’t win, but as every disappointed, nominated but non-winner at the Emmys, Grammys, Golden Globes, or Academy awards unconvincingly says, it was a great honor just to be recognized.

[2] Christian New Testament, James 1:19-20.


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