A vow of silence is a personal, voluntary oath to refrain from speaking. There are numerous reasons to take such a vow, with many people associating this concept with expressions of religious faith. The duration depends on the purpose, with common reasons for refraining from speech including contemplation, repentance, the desire to sacrifice, control or manipulation and political protection and statements. Committing to not talking doesn't necessarily hinder communications. People should differentiate these pledges from medically- or psychologically-based silences.
The time limits on a vow of silence vary and depend on the circumstances that bring it about. An oath to stop talking permanently is the least common, although some people do accept this level of commitment. Others pledge to stay quiet for a set period of time, such as a year or just a particular part of the day, while some vow to remain silent until they achieve something or a certain event takes place.
Greater and Lesser Silence
In some regions, those in cloisters or monasteries participate in what is known as the Greater Silence. They may not speak at all during this period, which usually covers the time between evening and morning prayers. Individuals also engage in the Lesser Silence, which lasts from morning to evening prayers. People may speak to pray or to convey truly critical information, but they do not welcome unnecessary conversation.
Purpose and Goals
When an individual takes a vow of silence, the main intent often is to promote religious contemplation. He usually believes that, when a person stops talking, he is forced to look inward, to think about the nature of faith and his own personal beliefs. In theory, with the distractions that come with conversation gone, he is better able to concentrate on spiritual development or activities. Many individuals connect this to the idea that God or another Higher Power does not always communicate in words, that true connection and understanding comes in moments of divine stillness.
Sometimes, a person stops talking because he wants to show he is sorry for something he's done. He gives up his voice, which he sees as valuable, as a way of dealing with guilt. If someone he's wronged offers sincere forgiveness, or if the person taking the vow comes to feel he's somehow made up for what happened, he typically ends his silence.
Substitute for Material Sacrifice
It is relatively common for people of faith to adopt a fairly minimalistic approach to living, buying and using only what they really need. They focus on the underlying principle that too much "stuff" makes it difficult to be active in religion, because so many tasks and responsibilities come with material wealth. Christians, for example, point to the command of Jesus to leave material things behind to follow Him. When someone already has reduced his belongings, his voice can be an additional thing to sacrifice.
Relationship Control and Manipulation
A vow of silence sometimes is part of relationship or social manipulation. A young child, for example, might give the "silent treatment" to punish other kids, or to get across that he's not happy. Even some adults use this technique as a way of passive-aggressively asserting some control, particularly when they are angry.
Political Protection and Statements
In some cases, a political or other prisoner stops talking because he does not want to reveal incriminating or sensitive information to his captors. Usually, this type of vow applies only when someone tries to interrogate the prisoner, although some individuals won't talk to anyone at any time because they don't know which people are trustworthy. More rarely, someone uses the tactic simply as a political statement, knowing that the media might pick up the story of his silence and unavoidably have to bring attention to his cause.
One misconception about a vow of silence is that it effectively stops a person from communicating completely. In reality, an individual who doesn't want to talk can get ideas across quite clearly in many cases with nonverbal gestures and expressions, such as hugging someone he's happy to see. Writing things down is another strategy, with contemporary individuals even using tools like email and smartphones. Even sign language occasionally comes into play. Although stopping speech doesn't completely cut a person off from others, he might pick specific ways of interacting so as to maintain the intent of the vow.
It is worth noting that an individual might stop talking specifically as a way to shift his ways of communicating on purpose. When a person cannot rely on speech, what he does get across with body language, notes or other tools often is more honest and brief, lacking much of the fluff and drama that takes up unnecessary time and drains energy. With someone expressing in this improved way, relationships and a general appreciation of the world often deepen once the vow ends.
Perception of the Vow
Speech is a normal part of everyday social interaction, although the amount of talking that is acceptable varies from culture to culture, and as a result, friends, family and acquaintances do not always understand a vow of silence. They might see a person who takes one as being unstable, for example, or as being out of touch with the rest of the world. The ability of the community to understand the motivations behind it matter, however. Other nuns, for example, are generally accepting of another nun who stops talking because they share the mindset that the vow can yield spiritual benefits. It is not unheard of for a person to travel to a different location before putting it into effect so that he doesn't suffer as much social disapproval.
Vows of silence are usually completely voluntary, which means that, even if an individual starts one to repent or sacrifice, he wants to stop talking on some level. They should not confused with the silence that sometimes happens after a physical or emotional trauma and which is associated with psychological difficulties, because this problem often requires the person to get professional help before his mental and social functioning is restored. People also need to separate it from the physical inability to talk, which can be the result of many different medical conditions and procedures. "Vocal rest," which is a common treatment for inflammation of the vocal cords and surrounding tissues, falls somewhere in the middle, because people often willingly stop talking to protect their vocal health.