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  • Writer's pictureJonathan E. Pearl

The Sounds of Silence

Though it can feel like a void in communication, silence can be very meaningful in different cultural contexts. Silence generally means the absence of any kind of ambient audible sound. In communication it is usually characterised as the absence of speech. But the absence of speech does not amount to the absence of communication. In fact, the forbearance or abstinence of speech is a deliberate or imposed state of muteness – a very powerful form of communication. And the meaning of silence will differ depending on the situation, and the cultural context of the interaction in question. Condon and Yousef (1975) categorize non-verbal behaviour into 24 aspects. Silence is one of them. So, silence has the same social functions as non-verbal behaviour.

A pause in a spoken communication may indicate that the speaker has: reached a natural conclusion, is thinking, or is giving the listener a chance to respond. Alternatively, a pause may be used for ‘dramatic effect’, so that the audience thinks carefully about what is said next. But that’s not the end.

An unexplained silence can be informative. My wife is normally very talkative. When she goes silent I quickly realise that I am in trouble. If you have ever walked into a crowded room and everyone has stopped talking you might rightly have treated this silence as a sign of collective contempt or distrust, or that the group was discussing you.

Sometimes silence is a way of indicating that you wish to be left alone. Sometimes silence is a way of ceding an argument without acknowledging defeat. If you stay silent when other people are speaking ill of someone else, you may be communicating that: (1) you do not share the feelings of the others present (2) that you do not gossip, regardless of the circumstances, or (3) that you agree with the comments, but are not prepared to openly declare that. Silence speaks volumes.

Culture Shock

Western cultures, especially that of native English-speakers, tend to view silence as problematic. Worse still, in a Western social context silence is often perceived as a sign of inattention, apathy or even hostility.

“Silence is not a meaningful part of the life of most members of the dominant culture in the United States” Samovar (1998).

In our interactions at work, in public, or with friends, silence is often uncomfortable. Even among sign-language speakers, studies (such as Levinson, 2015) show that typically we leave just a fraction of a second between taking turns to talk. Research conducted in Holland (Koudenburg, 2011) in Dutch and in English found that when a silence in conversation stretched to four seconds or more, people start to feel unsettled.

It’s perhaps a cliché to say that Latin Americans, Italians and Spaniards are perfectly happy to speak over one another – there are often few, if any, gaps - and silence in any meeting in Rio might be awkward.

In other cultures, however, silence is not viewed nearly as negatively. A comparative study (Yamada, 2015) of business meetings found that Japanese attendees were happy with silences of up to 8.2 seconds – nearly twice as long as Americans in similar meetings. For this reason, the instincts of many Westerners to fill any silence in a business meeting can be perceived as pushy and arrogant by their Asian counterparts.

Asian people are not the only people to respect silence. Nordic cultures, like those in Asia, are inclined to ‘listening’ rather than ‘talking’, and seek consensus in a conversation.

In West Africa there is a saying “silence is also speech”. Silence is a way of showing that you enjoy someone’s company; it implies that you are comfortable enough together not to need to fill every moment with sound.

There are strong cultural reasons why Asian people are more comfortable with silence. According to Zen Buddhism, enlightenment can be reached only through silence, and Buddhist teachings can only be understood with silent meditation and contemplation. For those who come from a Buddhist culture, silence is a positive force, strongly associated with truth.

According to the famous Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu, "Silence is a source of great strength". In China, silence is often used to indicate agreement and receptiveness.

In Asian cultures silence can often be a sign of respect. If an Asian person asks a question, it is considered polite for the listener to pause to consider the answer – even if they know the answer immediately.

Silence is revered in Japan – which is a deeply collectivist society with a strong group consciousness allowing people to use a few words in order to be understood. A good example of Japanese collective identity is the saying: Deru kui wa utareru (“A tall tree catches much wind”). This maxim encourages people to melt into the crowd, and to be content with being unexceptional.

I have known senior Japanese business managers who appear to sleep during business presentations– this is not meant to be rude, but rather to indicate that the ‘sleeper’ trusts the speaker implicitly. (At least that’s what they told me).

In Japan silence might also be used to ‘save face’ when the listener actually strongly disagrees with what he has heard. Lebra (2007) identified four dimensions of silence in Japan, being: truthfulness, social discretion, embarrassment and defiance. The first three dimensions are helpful to maintain positive relations, while the last dimension is decidedly negative.

Interestingly in Japanese culture silence can indicate the level of intimacy in a relationship. The fewer words exchanged, the stronger the bond. According to the concept of ittai a husband and wife are one entity. In a society where public displays of emotion are discouraged, silence between spouses (or even lovers) — shows that the two can understand each other without words.

Silence in Negotiation and Mediation

Regardless of culture, silence gives parties the space to think before responding. In any mediation be sensitive where one or more of the parties don’t share a common language. Parties may need time, and a period of silence, to understand what is said, and to properly formulate a response.

In many tough negotiations there is often an awkward silence at the start of the first meeting, or at the first meeting after a previously difficult meeting. Many perceive (not always correctly) that the party who breaks the silence is showing powerlessness. In fact, the party who does speak first can set the tone of what follows. As mediators we are used to ‘active’ listening. But the act of openly hearing and observing the parties should be done together with a physical indication of openness – to give the silence context. Silence is always ambiguous. Non-verbal hints such as nodding, or facial expressions can all help to add meaning to the silence.

When you are silent but smiling, nodding, and showing open body language, people will tend to use more interpretive abstract language. They tend to go deeper into the conversation and they share their opinions more openly. If your silence is accompanied by frowning, folded arms or legs, you appear more closed off. And the person you are listening to may tend to be more careful and analytic and only share concrete, descriptive facts.

Bear in mind that in many Asian, Middle-Eastern and Latin cultures there is often an unwritten hierarchy – only the most senior person will speak in a group meeting. The more junior people will stay silent.

Silence is a powerful way to learn about the other side's interests, and what they consider valuable. Silence gives the other person space to speak, and it displays the audience’s willingness to listen and learn more. Where you are trying to get information out of a party asking open-questions and being as silent as possible in response is a great way to get them to open up.

But silence can also be used tactically in negotiation and conflict resolution. In negotiation all knowledge is power. And sometimes the best way to gain information is to keep quiet and allow the other party to talk. People often hate a vacuum and will often try to fill it with noises and words. Sometimes by resisting the temptation to speak or fight-back you allow the person holding forth to reveal unexpected information, or sometimes an admission or an apology.

I have been in negotiations between parties from Western and Eastern culture where the formers’ natural abhorrence of silence has led to Westerners negotiating against themselves.

In mediation I often allow the perpetrator-party (or the party who identifies least as the victim) to speak first. Remarkably, the perpetrator-party will often be more reasonable, apologetic and self-effacing when speaking first, than if they are asked to listen and then respond to the victim-party’s list of grievances. The victim-party’s silence can produce an apology that can lead to a quick settlement.

Silence can amount to consent

In many common law jurisdictions silence can be a mute signal of acceptance in contract negotiations, or in a tortious context. When you silently enter a barber’s shop and sit in the chair, you are legally indicating your acceptance to enter into a contract to pay for a haircut. By entering a boxing ring, gloved-up, you are silently consenting to being assaulted. And these are socially accepted norms.

Obviously, as a meditator it is important for you to get clarity if there really is acceptance of a settlement agreement. So, the silence of one party should always be explored to determine its true meaning.

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