The On Being Project

The Unexpected Silence of Waiting Together

The stacks of magazines in the waiting room go unread; the complimentary coffee and tea untouched. But most notable is the silence. Not a word exchanged by the women present, nor any eye contact.
There would be a buzz of chatter if this were a nail salon, a spa, a women’s locker room, a congregate dressing room in a clothing store, a school bus stop where mothers pick up their children. I used to get my nails done every week because of the quality of the conversation. At my gym, I sought the advice of strangers in choosing an internist and where to buy a bathing suit.
Women like to talk to each other, even if they’ve never met, and it’s nothing like the male version of idle conversation, “How about those Giants?” — often punctuated with a fist bump. Part of the allure of vacationing at a pricey spa is that it’s largely a female space, where strangers share intimate details of their lives, practical tips, and often become friends.
If this were the waiting room at, say, the periodontist, men would be engrossed in The Wall Street Journal or Sports Illustrated while the women would be talking about this and that. Yes, such stereotypes are onerous, but on my last such visit, three women who had never met were sharing the rigors and sadness of caring for elderly parents. The same thing happened on a recent train trip: the men, of similar age, also had ailing mothers and fathers, but preferred the solitary escape of the stock tables or the box scores.
The silent waiting room that prompted this column, on its face, resembles a spa or a health club. Everyone here is female, and wearing an identical knee-length robe, with their clothing stashed in a locker. It’s a wing of the diagnostic radiology suite at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, the one reserved for mammograms and sonograms. There are men down the hall, waiting for CAT scans or MRIs. Likely they are quiet, too.
But it’s this female silence that is noteworthy.

(Orbis / Flickr / Some Rights Reserved)

Some of us are here for our annual breast cancer screenings. Some of us, indistinguishable from the rest, already have the disease, which will strike one in eight women. Maybe it’s that division between the sick and the well that silences us. How could I know when in almost 30 years of such tests I’ve never heard a word spoken in these rooms, except by the technician who comes to get each of us when it’s our turn? Never have I wondered out loud why we don’t talk to each other.

One by one we’re taken to the examining room, our breasts squeezed uncomfortably between metal plates. Then we rejoin the others and the unread magazines, untouched coffee, and silence, waiting to find out if the first set of images were clear or if they need to be repeated. Some women turn pale if they’re called back a second time, despite assurances that it means nothing more than that they squirmed and thus blurred the film.
For those of us also getting a sonogram, a more sensitive screening tool often used for those women who take hormone replacements or have unusually dense breast tissue, “passing” the first exam is only half the game. After that, another technician takes us to another room for another test. Then we rejoin the others, again to wait.
All told, if it’s not a busy time of day like lunch hour, we probably spend an hour in each other’s company. I’m a manic talker, yet over the course of my adult lifetime I’ve never acknowledged another person in one of these rooms — not a hello, not a comment about the weather, not a gesture of commiseration or sisterhood.
At the end of all the waiting, each of us is handed a radiology breast imaging report, folded in half for privacy. It tells us if our tests were “normal/negative/no change” — the desired result. If a different box is checked, we’re alerted that “additional studies are required,” which ones we need, and a phone number to call. There’s a space for comments, five lines’ worth. I’m reminded of kindergarten and the teacher who wrote, “Works and plays well with others.”
This time I get my mammogram report card at the same time as another woman across the room. The technician calls our names and feigning calm we rush toward her, grab and unfold the slips of paper and exhale in unison. Then (amazing!) we make eye contact and the ice is broken. Heading for the exit, we walk shoulder-to-shoulder, all but holding hands like girls in the schoolyard.
“It gets harder every year,” I say as we stand at the elevator. “Like eventually you’re gonna run out of luck.”
She nods in agreement, then asks, “Did you ever notice that nobody ever talks to each other?”
“Yup,” I reply.
“But we’re talking,” she says. “I’m glad. And I’m glad both of our results were good.”

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