DRIVING IN SILENCE
It has frequently been observed how often strangers, even when together in close quarters, rarely communicate, studiously avoid talking to each other. In theaters, elevators, buses, and airplanes, for example, people positioned but inches from one another will nevertheless keep entirely to themselves, avoid eye contact, exchange few if any words and then only when absolutely necessary. What has largely gone unnoticed is that intimates and relatives when in similar circumstances may not talk to one another either but will regard such silences as entirely natural, not in the least uncomfortable. Typically such rituals of reticence take place in automobiles. Even with three or four persons in the vehicle long stretches of time can elapse during which not a word will be exchanged.
What is it about automobile travel that can produce so curious a phenomenon? Some of it may simply relate to driving conditions. Heavy traffic, poor road surfaces, wet weather, uncertain directions, night travel—all can place a strain even on an experienced driver. To begin a conversation would likely distract him, obligate him to
respond, involuntarily turn his head in order to converse or even resort to hand gestures to emphasize a point. Maintain silence and you avoid such risks.
Then of course there is the radio, videos, CDs, or books on tape to watch or listen to. Aside from some preliminary talk about program preferences, recorded sound now fills the car and replaces conversation. Or it may instead be the play-by-play account and incessant chatter of baseball, football, or basketball commentators. Also not to be overlooked is the effect of passing scenery. Novel sights, an ever-changing tableau combine to concentrate the mind and substitute for talk. And most remarkably, once silence settles in, it tends to persist, erecting formidable obstacles to the resumption of conversation.
It is beyond dispute that a) the most potent conversation-stopper is sleep, and b) that the soporific effect of car travel is irresistible. Relaxed posture, inclined seats, comfortable temperature settings and the steady sound of the engine and hum of the roadbed all conspire to produce drowsiness and then sleep. And surely sleep is contagious. Watch one passenger fall off and predictably the others will follow suit. A prolonged period of silence usually indicates that all passengers have drifted off. The driver will now be reluctant to do anything that might awaken them (especially when children are involved). Accordingly he will turn off the radio, drive at a steady pace, avoid as best he can having to stop (for example by using automatic tolls) or blowing the horn, so firmly committed is he to this collective unconsciousness. Conversation will eventually resume somewhere down the road but for now—silence reigns.