Confidence and the Silent Period

by Sarah Luna

My mom once described a silent period as the time it takes the brain to process information after being introduced. The time it takes for things to click. She told me that my silent period for things like calculus was way shorter than hers. This means that it takes me less time to understand how to do a calculus problem once I’ve been shown how to do it.

She borrowed that concept from her experience as an ESL teacher. A silent period in that context refers to the length of time a new English learner is unable to speak. The processing time, if you will. They have the knowledge, but they haven’t yet integrated it into a usable skill. I’ve applied this concept in other areas of my life as learning theory.

My silent periods differ by subject. For most things, they range from a few minutes to a few hours. I catch on pretty quickly to a lot of things. Before you think I’m bragging though, my silent period for statistics is about two weeks, which is excruciating for me. It just. doesn’t. click.

My silent period for new situations: one month.

One month (goodness, I’m slow)

I’ve had to integrate into an entirely new social group five times in my adult life. This is how I know I have a one month social silent period. I can introduce myself to other people. I can meet nice people. I can form acquaintances.

But, objectively speaking, I don’t instantly connect with the people around me. I’m pretty reserved until I know that someone is trustworthy. Friendships don’t instantly click. I used to wonder if that made me a less nice of a person. One of my co-counselors at CCF reassured me: “You’re a nice person. I knew that when I met you. I could just see that it takes you longer than four days to open up to people.”

Last week marked two months in Ithaca.

Looking back on my fifth social silent period, I realize that much of what distinguished it was a lack of confidence on my part. When I am unsure, I sit back and observe. When I am confronted in a class or a meeting for answers, I’ll mumble something to shift the attention away from me. I am acutely aware of my newness. But in most of those cases, I knew what I was being asked. I was simply too self-conscious to claim an answer. Too afraid of being wrong.

As a PhD student, I am constant humbled by what I do not know. Constantly overwhelmed by the knowledge available to me. That just comes with territory. Every time I open my mouth, I suddenly remember how much I do not know or have not read or have not experienced, and the words fall flat.

More recently, the lack of confidence invaded into the dancing part of my world. I tried out on a whim for the Cornell Dancesport team. I made it, and I love it. Dancing four nights a week keeps me sane. But I’ve learned that social ballroom dancing for four years at A&M did not prepare me for competitive dancing. Some nights, it seems like I do everything wrong.

My partner and I recently had a lesson with Ronen Zinshtein (youtube him, he’s pretty awesome) to prepare for an upcoming competition. He was absolutely phenomenal, but the moment I got into frame, he stopped me and proceeded to correct everything. I was literally doing nothing right. Part of me wilted. Part of my confidence as a dancer died. Part of me felt shamed to be on the same dance floor. Part of me felt incorrigibly awkward. Fortunately, he was just as nice of a person as he was amazing as a dancer. By the end of the lesson, I at least felt capable again.


My confidence is slowly healing. I’m at the point that when social mishaps occur (as they inevitably will), my mortification lasts only briefly, and then I unfreeze and move on.

Knowing how I adapt has helped me go easier on myself. Life is awkward, but I’m ready to emerge from my silent periods and move on.

Got my game face on now.