Moment of Silence: Signifigance and Etiquette Behind the Tradition

Published April 20, 2021
Mature couple wrapped in a blanket cuddling in silence

Taking a moment of silence is an act that is at once universally understood and yet universally misunderstood. Millions of people around the world know exactly how to behave when someone calls for a moment of silence, but most people probably don't know where the traditional even came from. Chances are quite high that you've never heard the story behind the first infamous moment of silence and how it came to be used by politicians, grieving communities, and sports commentators alike.

Moment of Silence Started With World War I

As with all lasting communal traditions, the moment of silence has a legendary origin story. Its nexus begins in Cape Town, South Africa during World War I. Sir Harry Hands resided in Cape Town at the time and had recently suffered the loss of his eldest son, Reginald, to the fighting on the western front. Taken by his grief and inspired by the routine gun shots that the town had fired to mark noon every day, save Sundays, for more than 200 years, Hands began holding a six-minute moment of silence to honor the soldiers who had been killed during the war. Word of this action found its way to King George V, who made a public announcement on November 17, 1919 on "the 11th hour" that the country would hold a two-minute moment of silence in remembrance of the lives lost during the war. Thus, the moment of silence was born.

Moment of Silence Legacy

Unsurprisingly, the moment of silence has a complicated legacy, most often being used in the wake of tragedy - both civilian and militaristic. Interestingly, the moment of silence was used as an odd form of protest by those who opposed the Supreme Court's ruling in 1962 to ban the use of prayer in public schools; they would engage in a prayer but cloak it as holding a moment of silence. However, the moment of silence continues to be used most often in the wake of destruction and the onset of grief and mourning. For instance, it was announced that the United Kingdom would observe a three-minute national moment of silence to honor Prince Philip in the wake of his death.

The Senate Democrats held a moment of silence in Emancipation Hall to commemorate the lives of George Floyd,

Proper Etiquette for a Moment of Silence

Moments of silence are usually quite brief, but it's important that you refrain from making any purposeful noise while they're happening, as this is a sign of great disrespect and will probably offend a good number of people around you. Some choose to bow their heads when the moment begins, while others share glances and nods with those around them. Either way, try to remain as still and quiet as possible to appreciate the reverence of an uncommon sight to see - that of the world completely stopping, if just for a moment.

How to Do a Moment of Silence

Generally, moments of silence are arranged within a greater program so that the presenters and attendees know one is coming. However, don't feel discouraged from signaling a moment of silence off the cuff; sometimes, the most genuine moments are those that're unplanned. If you're the one who's been tasked with announcing the moment of silence, you can make a short statement about the reason for the moment of silence, the length it will take, and a starting call such as "let's begin." These announcements don't have to turn into speeches, rather they should be concise enough to communicate exactly what the moment is for and nothing more.

Two young women look down at burning candles and remember during a moment of silence

How Long Is a Moment of Silence?

The much-debated question is how long should a moment of silence last; if you're basing the amount of time off of the actual definition of a moment, then that's ninety seconds as determined by an 8th century monk named St. Bede. However, the more common amount of time for a moment of silence to last is about two to three minutes. Occasionally, highly significant commemorative events will hold longer silences to honor the greater death tolls, such as the one's that acknowledge 9/11's anniversary in the U.S. every year, but this isn't a good standard to set because anything longer than three minutes and you'll start to lose the crowd's attention to the task at hand. If you want to hold a really effective moment of silence, then you want to keep it under three minutes.

If Only for a Moment

There's something particularly beautiful about both witnessing and participating in a moment of silence. It's fascinating that something so focused on sharing can also be so individualistic. Just remember when you're heading into your next moment of silences to take the time to really be reflective and polite; you may feel like you haven't got the time to spare just one moment, but a moment's all you need to feel grounded in both yourself and your community.

Moment of Silence: Signifigance and Etiquette Behind the Tradition