Some media outlets in the U.S. and U.K. have recently reported on a vegetarian restaurant in the Greenpoint neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., that features something quite unusual on the menu: "silent” dinners, where neither the customers nor the wait-staff speak for the duration of the meal. The establishment is simply called “Eat,” and this policy of silence-- in effect just once a week when multi-course organic meals are offered -- was apparently inspired by one of the owners' visit to a Buddhist monastery in India.
“This is an opportunity for people to experience food as they might not otherwise,” restaurant curator Nicholas Nauman told The Brooklyn Paper. “If we limit our engagement with speech, we can find our consciousness doing other things.”
A report on the restaurant in Vice.com by journalist Carey O'Donnell took a decidedly sarcastic view of this experiment in quietude. “Both the chef and the other server maintained a slightly affected placidity throughout dinner,” O’Donnell wrote. “I couldn't decide... if they truly believed in this.” O’Donnell also called the meal “overpriced” and not “life-affirming,” and added how odd the oppressive silence seemed. “I thought to myself as I ate salad that I could have probably purchased at 7-Eleven,” O’Donnell sneered. “I didn't feel impolite staring at other people. In fact, I felt like it was necessary. A few times, while chewing the stale bread, I purposefully locked eyes with a man across the room who looked like an inventor.”
According to the restaurant’s website, “Eat” has been in existence for five years (quite a long time in the volatile and highly competitive world of New York City cuisine) and they acquire all their ingredients solely from local organic producers. The silent meals are held on Sunday evening (with reservations required well in advance). Even the nonfood items in the place, i.e., the furniture and artwork, are produced by “regional artisans” (I suppose to somehow add to the Buddhist ambience of eating sans noise).
In Buddhism the concept of silence is intimately linked to depth of thought and meditation – the Buddha himself remained famously silent when asked several profound questions, suggesting that one should explore and find one's own answers to life's most vexing questions and problems. I have never been to this restaurant (as I am neither a vegetarian nor do I like "trendy" eateries, particularly those found in gentrified Brooklyn), but this place has the right idea.
Although I feel that absolute silence for several hours over a meal is a tad extreme, I like the idea of a "no talking" rule. We live in a society with constant noise, sounds emanating from televisions, radios, traffic, and, most of all, the loud, nonsensical chatter of obnoxious, vulgar people who like nothing more than the sound of their own voices. Put simply, too many people talk too much and too loudly in public, thereby ruining the quality of life for those of us who resent having our private space bombarded. In stores, in offices, in trains, in buses, and in restaurants, the cacophony is inescapable. This eccentric restaurant in Greenpoint appears to be throwing down a gauntlet and I applaud them for it.
I should point out that I actually enjoy hearing people talk – as long as they have something interesting or funny or important to say and they know how to speak properly. I especially love people who have beautiful, mellifluous voices; and I am enamored of certain accents.
However, the sad reality in 2013 America is that the art of conversation has died and most people simply do not know how to talk… yet, they keep on chattering. There are many causes behind this epidemic of verbal diarrhea: One is the omnipresence of TV and mass media, which makes constant chatter seem normal, even a requisite in all human interactions. Indeed, television (where people yak continuously) has not only damaged our communication skills but also created a mindset where we are compelled to try to be funny or clever or outrageous every few minutes (i.e., like the laugh-track of TV sitcoms, among other media brainwashing devices).
In a broader context, I think that the mass media-entertainment industry has deformed and corrupted how humans communicate with each other. Too many people want to either entertain or be entertained; they have no interest whatsoever in debate, development, learning or growth. In our 24-hour-cable-TV-mass-media-world, the most important things are being “cool” and “popular,” rather than, say, smart, good and kind.
I have known people in my personal life who simply cannot stop talking. To them, chattering equates to breathing and living. In some cases, it's a nervous habit, in others, a desire to dominate and control all social settings. Some of these people (of both sexes, I should note) simply do not know how to converse -- that is, carry on a dialogue. Rather, they deliver lengthy, meandering monologues and do not like being interrupted nor overshadowed by anyone or anything.
Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, another technological development has further eroded our communication abilities: social media and mobile telephony. Instead of speaking, conversing and forming original ideas, a great many people now resort to shortcuts, using such egregious verbal substitutes as “LOL,” “no problem,” “wow” and many other meaningless, annoying terms.
Years ago I rode on an Amtrak train from New York to Boston where the woman passenger in front of me must have called two-dozen of her friends during the five-hour journey – I noted that in every single “conversation,” she repeated the exact same mundane details of her life in the exact same order to each of her listeners. It was like an assembly line of inanity. If I hadn't been so irritated by her, I would have admired her for her ability to replicate her monologue so perfectly! (Amtrak has since instituted a "quiet car" policy, which it actually enforces.)
As for the predilection of too many people talking too loudly in public, I doubt this phenomenon will ever end. When I have asked (or demanded) that people in public be quiet, they invariably react negatively. They are almost always outraged by my entreaties – as if THEIR rights are being trampled upon. Since I (usually) seek to avoid unpleasant confrontations, I give up. I am simply fighting against too many powerful, inexorable forces.
Thus, I salute “Eat” and thank God that something in gentrified Brooklyn stands for decency and sanity.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.