The sounds of silence

This post first appeared as a column at

Many years ago, the old AT&T had a long-running ad campaign. Its slogan: “Reach out and touch someone.” Who imagined that telephonically would be the only way we could touch someone?

In some ways, the coronavirus deal has caused a huge blanket of silence. In other ways, there’s more communicating now than ever. (See this video taken in my Federal News Network studio for what it’s like to work alone.)

Have you noticed, the time of year has arrived when the birds start singing in the morning.  When accompanying the sight of the early blossoms and the trees with their initial blush of green, the birdsong quickens the heart on a bright morning. Nobody told the birds about coronavirus.

The menace itself, though, doesn’t say a word. In fact, you can’t see it or smell it either. You sure can touch it, though.

One of my regular show guests, WTOP Capitol Hill correspondent Mitchell Miller, told me in an interview of the silence of the Capitol building itself. He was inside, still able to work at his cubicle in the press gallery. Somewhere else in the Capitol, he thought House Speaker Nancy Pelosi was hanging around. Maybe another two or three people inside. Mitchell said he was half expecting the ghost of Theodore Sedgewick — speaker of the first House to meet in the then-new Capitol — to pop out of a dark corner.

More threatening in some ways: the silencing of the economy. Shuttered stores, idle factories, empty restaurants. I used to joke, we’re three paychecks away from living in the minivan. It doesn’t seem like a joke now. Great enterprises large and small won’t survive.

I wore one of my several pairs of official Washington Nationals socks last week, on what should have been Opening Day. Imagine how noisy that would have been. Instead, the players received their World Series rings and witnessed the raising of the banner in an empty, silent stadium.

There’s noise, too, punctuating the silence. I find it’s a good idea to limit exposure to the discordant traffic of cable news, the never-ending breathless outrage, incessant chatter about disinfecting, hand washing, the case counts and politics. You’ve got less noisy places to stay informed.

Rachel Carson’s 1962 book Silent Spring changed how the world thinks about pesticides. She worried about chemicals like DDT getting into the animal food chain and killing off birds.

Now we’ve got “Synthetic Spring,” as in synthetic togetherness.  Zoom and its brethren have become how we reach out and touch someone. All those online meetings through the tiny speakers of notebook computers!

It’s not just at work, either. This past weekend we had three Zoom cocktail parties. They are fun, and we’re grateful for the technology that enables them. But they can get noisy because of the internet latency and heavy demand, so a lot of talking at once.

If anything, we’re hypercommunicating, talking more than ever, renewing lost connections.

Communication between the government and its contractors in some ways is better than ever, reports Alan Chvotkin of the Professional Services Council. He said Ellen Lord, the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, is hosting several calls a week with the contractor trade associations.  One listener sent me a 39-page frequently-asked-questions guide for contractors issued by the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Other agencies are also reaching out more. Chvotkin named the General Services Administration and Homeland Security among other, doing calls and directives. Is your agency? (I’m looking at you, Office of Management and Budget.)

My interview process for broadcast hasn’t changed all that dramatically. That’s all talking to begin with. The regular parade of guests to my studio for recording interviews — that’s over for now. Guests are all calling in now. But often where they are — at home — they’ve got to hunt for a quiet spot. I’ve heard tons kids and dogs thundering around in the background in the last few weeks.

One guest was calling from his home in Florida, noting all the ceramic tile and high ceilings. He said he was sitting on his bed because that would help dampen the echoes.

I guess few people have wall-to-wall and heavy drapes these days. I’ve had more than one guest, calling from a hard-floored house in the ‘burbs, agree to go into a clothes closet and shut the door. Amazing! Clarity and no echo.

Several guests have lamented that with everyone stuck in the house, it’s hard to find a quiet place to work. I say, it’s okay. If a dog barks or a child interrupts, that should be the worst of our problems.