The art of silence

An enterprising woman named Ikuko Atsumi has begun instructing American businessmen on the Japanese uses of silence. While her Greater Boston clients bite their tongues, she explains that her countrymen require a prefatory silence before all business negotiations - as ritualistic as a tea ceremony. Eventually there follows another kind of silence that serves as a middle pause - a moment for reviewing the last things said to one while preparing the next thing one will say. During this silence, unnerved American businessmen are apt to panic, rush into concessions, and generally give away the store.

There is, finally, the silence that says, ''No! You're pushing too hard, my friend!'' But few there be to translate this. For here is the most puzzling of all silences to Americans. Most of us simply cannot understand rejection carried to such a velvet state of refinement.

The fact is, silence terrifies a lot of us under almost any circumstance - social as well as business. We may argue, for instance, that the test of true friendship occurs when two people remain at ease with silence. But how quickly we flutter into small talk, filling the dead air with sheer sound like a desperate disc jockey.

As much as anything, the ubiquitous telephone signals that we abhor silence the way nature abhors a vacuum. About 25 million telephones will be sold in the United States this year, according to Consumer Reports. They will be stationed in basements beside the laundry, in kitchens, within reach of the refrigerator, in bathrooms, next to shaving mirrors. Even the family automobile is as incomplete without its outlet as without a spare tire. One manufacturer, pushing a ''Cellular Mobilphone,'' promises, ''Now you can make local, national, or international calls right from the comfort of your own car.''

Need we mention the conference call, the equivalent of saturation bombing as far as silence is concerned?

When human voices falter, the user-friendly synthesizer pipes up. The Japanese may cultivate the uses of silence. But Mitsubishi still produces a talking air conditioner. Matsushita manufactures an electronic oven as full of fussy instructions as a cordon bleu chef. And a number of Japanese cameras are equipped to shame their owners in public with such disparaging remarks as: ''Too dark. Use flash.''

Modern living would appear to be a calculated conspiracy of non-silence. We do not seem to want to do anything in silence, even ride an elevator. Between floors, as in the aisles of supermarkets and the waiting rooms of airports, Muzak washes over our daily lives like a B-movie sound track. We jog to music. We drive to music. We work to music. We eat to music. We wake to music. We fall asleep to music.

And, of course, it isn't music at all. Who could listen attentively to hour after hour of real music, especially while winding spaghetti on a fork? Our public music, like an endless tape, functions at the low level of a TV set after midnight with only the target pattern in place.

The other day the chaplain of the United States Senate was prompted to remark , ''Loving Father, this is a place of great power, and the powerful people usually suffer in silence.'' The Senate majority leader, Howard Baker, could not in all conscience let this misconception stand on the record. He broke the silence to say, ''I have not seen a soul in this place be silent in weeks. They are the noisiest bunch I ever saw.''

Alas, Senator Baker speaks for a lot of us constituents as well. We may learn to play games with silence in order to do business with the Japanese. But silence still seems a negative state to us - almost an absence of life. Silence has a nasty way of interrupting activity, and even questioning the value of activity. Silence makes us think - not least of all about the effects of the noise in which we steep ourselves. Silence leads to peace. Is that why we fear it? Silence, somebody said, is the unbearable repartee. But the question is: If we wish certain kinds of knowledge and self-knowledge, can we bear to live without it?

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