My husband paces in front of me, a little out of breath, a little flustered, a little hurried. He’s speaking faster than usual, running his words together as he struggles to get in everything he wants to say, to squeeze in every last idea. It’s his first practice run-through of an important presentation for an upcoming conference.
As he speaks, my husband does something I also struggle with whenever I speak in front of an audience. In my college speech class they called it a “vocalized pause.” For me, it’s “um.” For my husband, it’s “uh.” It is simply a meaningless noise that fills the would-be silence between words. When he clicks to change slides: “Uh.” Between bullet points: “Uh.” When he needs a second to think what he wants to say next: “Uh.” I can’t understand what he’s saying between the “uhs” (engineer-speak), so my husband’s vocalized pauses are probably that much more glaring to me.
I do it too. Every time I go live on Facebook, I am cognizant of my tendency to let a few “ums” slip out. Even after much practice trying to avoid that distracting auditory filler, I still can’t seem to completely rid myself of the habit. I point out my husband’s vocalized pauses, and he begins the work of practicing them out. The third time he runs the 20-minute presentation, there are almost no “uhs.” Interestingly, though I couldn’t understand much of what he was saying the first time, much of the information now makes sense to me. Some of this might simply be due to repetition, but I think it’s more than that; I think it’s because the new space between my husband’s words has allowed my brain the necessary time to assimilate the information into my sad little organic hard drive. Apparently an “uh” is all it takes to break my fragile concentration.
And my husband looks and sounds better, too. More professional, more capable, more confident. It occurs to me that saying “uh” requires an exhale, and that replacing that nonsense-noise with silence allows him to inhale.
Allows him to breathe.
We need breath for like…everything, right? Inhaling is good. Taking a break from expelling information is good. Taking a break from receiving information is also good.
Whether it’s information coming in or information going out, our hard drives need time to process. We need a bit of silence, a tiny hiatus from the inundation of information, a few quiet moments to regroup.
It’s the same reason writers plan white space into their books.
Sometimes also called “negative space,” white space refers to the portions of the page not occupied by text. It is said that readers, especially today’s tired-eyed, information-barraged readers, need white space in order to remain engaged in a text. If a page is nothing but a jumble of tightly packed words, a reader might become overwhelmed. They might become so overwhelmed that they set the book or essay or article aside, never to finish.
This rings true to me. I only know how Victor Hugo’s notoriously long-winded Les Miserables ends because I’ve seen the movie.
Web designers also use white space. Too many articles smashed together on a site’s home page, too much information for the eye to try to absorb all at once, they say, makes a viewer more likely to click away.
In business and marketing, white space is the quiet, untapped space in the market – the place, they say, where opportunity lies.
I went to the salon last week, and my stylist asked me if I was stressed. My hair was falling out in clumps. Could be my thyroid, could be stress, she told me. Might wanna see a doctor about that. “Am I stressed?” I asked aloud, staring at myself in the mirror. I thought about how I keep pushing, pushing, pushing to do everything and be all things to everyone. How I stopped running a few months ago because it seemed more important at the time to focus on work. How I keep ten tabs open on my laptop at all times (only four right now, because I’m writing and supposedly I can’t write with distraction). How I waited a month just to make the stupid hair appointment because something else always took precedence over me. How, sometimes, for seemingly no reason at all, in the middle of the day, I start shaking and burst into tears. My job is in social media, so I’m always online. I’m always writing or editing or marketing or networking. My phone is in my hand so much that sometimes I get an ache by my thumb where the phone presses against the muscle.
There is no white space in my life. All the to-dos of my existence are so tightly packed together that there is no room to breathe. I am distracted by a never-ending vocalized pause of my own creation. I did this to myself.
And my freaking hair is falling out.
Sound familiar? I know I’m not the only one. I’m writing this so that if you see yourself in my words, you might also consider stepping back from the chatter and clutter and busyness and chaos and musts and shoulds….
I’m committed to plotting a little white space into my life. I might write a little slower, might market my book a little less, might miss a networking opportunity here and there. But I need to do this. If I’m going to be effective when it comes to information going out, information coming in, if I want to understand and be understood, then I need to make allowances for white space. I need to give myself a little room to breathe.
Who’s with me?