Shhhh. Stop talking.
When you stop talking, things become clearer: the world around you, your inner thoughts, the complaints of others, and shock events happening around the world.
For us to be able to listen to others, there is an element of silence at play: it is through silence that we listen.
But, how is it ingrained in your day-to-day life?
Are you not so fond of talking? Would you rather listen? Do you nod quietly to show that you are listening, or do you proceed with the conversation using questions, depending on context? What happens if the other party doesn’t say a single word?
The concept of silence varies depending on the context and culture you are looking at. We tend to interpret it differently depending on our upbringing, and the values imprinted into our mindset.
In this episode, I’ll explore the roles that silence tends to have.
Factors of silence
Before I do that, however, here are some factors of silence that are constant throughout each role:
- Information Confidence
Information confidence describes the certainty of the knowledge that you possess. You could be confident that your knowledge is tried and true. Or, you can be unsure of it, having learned it from untrusted sources, rumors, and non-experts. Some choose to stay silent due to their lack of confidence, and some choose to stay silent so as to not overwhelm others with their confidence.
- Comparative Knowledge
This describes how the levels of knowledge various parties within a conversation differ and play a role. For example, when in a conversation with a specialist, my awareness that he/she knows more than I do may tip me over to silence. I could stay quiet to learn more from them as a result.
How long should one be silent? When should we say something? Timing is everything, though as always it all depends on the context.
How close are the actors in the conversation? Are they best friends or strangers? Blood-related? Boss and employee, or teacher and student? You become more careful with what you say when it’s with people who aren’t so close to you.
The connections between two or more people influence the significance of silence in that conversation. Those in a conversation with greater sensitivity, say, a conversation with one’s boss, creates more avenues for silence: Staying quiet allows others to make their moves.
With these in mind, let’s look at some roles:
Silence as Preparation
In a conversation, whenever we listen, we absorb. Instead of immediately answering, it is advisable to have a degree of silence after to prepare.
Giving ourselves time to think brings up the following questions:
- Is what they are saying relevant to the context?
- Why have they delivered that message in that way?
- Why are they telling me about it?
- What value do they gain from saying that statement/point?
According to the context as well, you can craft your reaction in silence. There could be things that are better off not said. Inappropriate remarks, secrets and the like. In a nutshell, with more time, you can prepare better.
Silence as Power
The weight of a voice carries even through the silence ensued.
Silence also gives you more power: with it, you can put all your focus into listening, becoming attuned to the intended messages others attempt to deliver.
As a curious individual, your ability to make good use of silence helps shape the environment around you to become mute – when you are purposefully mute, the others in the conversation fill the void you create with their voices. That is a power in itself.
This is done with tension. The ability to control tension while talking is powerful. Tension maintains one’s power. The silence that comes after a point is made, if the speaker wills it to happen, can be used to create more tension. With tension, comes a show of power.
From the other side, the listener can learn plenty of lessons by being mute. When one builds themselves this way, they can get more power to achieve their potential. Staying mute while others are sharing their thoughts gives you, the listener, the power to grow. Not saying anything, then, becomes another way to ask for elaboration.
You become a better person just by listening.
On the other hand, silence can show a lack of power. When one becomes quiet, they could have nothing to add to the conversation, for example.
Silence as an expression
There are multiple ways to emanate different emotions through silence.
You can laugh silently, not wanting to make a sound in public. It’s comedy without a sound.
You could be crying, but nothing comes out except tears. Sadness could not only be heard, but seen as well.
You can keep quiet, because you don’t want to share certain things: out of shame, embarrassment, or that saying anything in this context is inappropriate.
In these cases, silence is used to express the human element of emotion.
When two persons are communicating, the messages they sent are split into two channels: verbal and non-verbal channels. When one is silent, they close off the entirety of their verbal channel.
There is now a greater emphasis on non-verbal cues when this occurs: body language, clothing, facial expression, actions etc.
This amplifies the emotion as it gets delivered to the receiver. Fear is one example. The scared expression on your face, paired with smaller body language and utter silence, can amplify the feeling.
Another example would be anger. Keeping quiet is a controllable way to hide one’s fury. To prevent from expressing anger in public, you can replace it with silence. Though, there are other non-verbal cues which can suggest it no matter what (eg. an angry face).
Silence as a Comfort
This is apparent in those with introverted attributes, who find more comfort in silence. These are moments where the context does not involve anyone else – for introverts, this is very appealing.
Just as we seek comfort when being in the company of friends and family, sometimes we need time to recuperate. Silence all around us can be comforting in this regard.
It can be used in meditation: what goes in your head and the efforts that you make in self-reflection.
Silence, in this case, is a method for you, the individual, to turn your eyes back towards yourself.
Silence as an Answer
When I ask you a question, would you say, what does that mean?
For those that do not have a good answer to the question, they may respond by saying something out loud. For example, some may say “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand”.
Others keep quiet.
For those that do know the answer, or are capable of addressing the question properly, they may show that in earnest. It could be a suggestion, directions, something like that.
Some, keep quiet regardless. Why?
If they knew the answer, why would they keep quiet?
It could be a number of things. There are instances where an individual may state something that you can’t agree with. They could have said something inaccurate, downright wrong, or a statement that requires correction.
You may choose to keep quiet in this case so as to not embarrass him. You may let him continue. He/she responds by continuing their monologue, based on the conclusion that you are still listening. In actual fact, you could just be drowning their voices out.
What if, your silence was the answer?
A person looking for a general consensus within the conversation may take your silence as an agreement. However, equipped with your disappointed facial expression and that thought may tip the other way.
Silence in Culture
Cultures further multiply the complexity of silence’s roles.
An example indicator we can use is Context: to what extent is the gravity of every word said, ie. the weight of a message delivered through verbal communication.
In a Western, low-context culture, silence is clear.
Power, while apparent in silence, is exuded through silence over other parties. That power, however, needs to be defined. In low-context cultures, intentions are explicitly stated, so that when we perform various verbal methods, like silence, it is clear what we are describing.
Emphasizing one’s points at the end of a sentence, after a specific tone, or the usage of such to state their lack of knowledge. We may not know, so we keep quiet. The other party may understand this.
It can show weakness too. By not voicing out our opinions, we lead others to believe we are in agreement. Western cultures have a tendency to look at silent characters as either timid, reserved, or unknowing.
The way that silence works in the East, however, plays a larger role than you think.
Let’s take Japan, being a high-context culture. If you’re in the midst of a Japanese conversation, the gravity of silence multiplies. Silence carries more depth when the context is not explicitly stated.
There are so many assumptions within a Japanese conversation, that half the time, the conversation had already begun before the first word. A silent bow. Eye contact without a sound. Zen, and the like. The silence from a junior and one from his boss holds entirely different complexities.
Hierarchy is another indicator. In Japanese culture, silence is ingrained with their values concerning hierarchy. According to Hofstede’s Dimensions, one metric to measure a country’s societal attributes, Power Distance, describes said hierarchy.
As Asian cultures generally have a greater Power Distance than Western cultures, individuals from these two cultures interpret silence differently depending on the situation.
At the end of a lecture, a speaker would open the session up to the students. This is allocated time to answer questions.
Students from a Western culture find value in asking the lecturer their questions. They desire answers from an expert, and to not waste time, they ask it then and there. Others keep quiet and listen to learn.
Students from an Eastern culture, however, may not ask questions during this time. Particularly in a Japanese context, they stay silent regardless if they have any. This is due to the heavy emphasis on politeness, an aspect of Japanese culture highly regarded. In order to not disturb the schedule of the lecturer, who is a senior in their field, Japanese students do not want to waste the time of those around them with pestering questions. Why speak out when you might bother others?
Silence became the tool to convey politeness in this situation.
We should not underestimate the quiet ones. As we communicate with each other, one should take note of the respective cultural values present, and the context that is mentioned.
You could stay silent to listen. You can keep quiet to stay in power.
Some may be silent because they’re not paying attention. They may not be able to understand what you are saying.
One thing is true though:
Some words are only heard when not spoken.
For more on Japan, check out my post on Attraction between the East and West.