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Home --> Old Wives' Tales --> Sudden Silences

Sudden Silences

Legend:   Even in the most crowded of rooms, an inexplicable silence will invariably strike conversationalists at twenty past the hour.

Origins:   Ever notice how conversation spontaneously seems to die out at twenty after the hour? If so, you're not alone — others have noted it too.

Why does this happen? There's no right answer ... which in itself is reason enough to attempt to explain it away with superstitious belief. A 1948 book about superstitions proffers this explanation for the phenomenon:
Sudden Clock silenceit must be twenty after

The most popular superstition on this subject, however, is the belief that when, for no apparent cause, everyone in a group suddenly seems at a loss for something to say, it must be twenty minutes after the hour. This idea is generally accepted by superstitious Americans, and is purely American in origin, going back to a legend which has grown around Abraham Lincoln's death.

For those who believe that the Great Emancipator died at 8:20 o'clock, a sudden silence is supposed to occur automatically ever since, through some supernatural agency. By the same token, there are those who believe that it is also a special reminder that the moment is of great significance and should never be forgotten. This superstitious belief has grown into a national tradition among all classes of society.
For what it's worth, President Abraham Lincoln did not die at 8:20, although his death did occur at roughly 20 past the hour. Lincoln was shot by actor John Wilkes Booth while attending a play at Ford's Theatre at approximately 10:13 on the evening of 14 April 1865; he was then carried across the street to Petersen's Boarding House, where he drew his last breath at about 7:22 the next morning.

A related theory asserts that human conversations lapse into silence every seven minutes; that is, that all members of the verbal exchange spontaneously find themselves at a loss for anything to say, leaving a blank spot in the yack session. It has been postulated that this seemingly impromptu onset of what in the radio business would be called 'dead air' dates back to prehistoric man, whom evolution eventually hardwired into programming in these pauses to listen for the approach of dangerous animals or members of rival tribes intent upon raiding the campsite.

Barbara "it's never 20 after at my house" Mikkelson

Last updated:   14 June 2005

Urban Legends Reference Pages © 1995-2014 by Barbara and David P. Mikkelson.
This material may not be reproduced without permission.
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  Sources Sources:
    de Lys, Claudia.   A Treasury of American Superstitions.
    New York: Philosophical Library, 1948.

    Donald, David Herbert.   Lincoln.
    New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.   ISBN 0-684-80846-3   (pp. 597-599).