Sunday, December 25, 2011

the Meaning of Silence

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The Meaning of Silence


This paper analyzes the nature of silence, the possible meaning of it, and the reasons for the different understanding of it in intercultural communication. At the end of the paper, some suggestions are given for successful understanding of it. It is the author’s intention that this knowledge can facilitate effective intercultural communication.

Silence, as one of the means of non-verbal communication, is also called “quiet time? In almost any language, we can find evidences to show importance people attach to it in English, we have a proverb ?speech is silver, and silence is golden.?In Chinese, we have ?silence is better than speech.?(cishi wusheng sheng yousheng). However, in actual communication, the significance of silence is largely ignored or, to make things worse, it is misunderstood partly because of the uncertain relationship between the signifier and the signified, since, in essence, silence is a sign. It is especially true in intercultural communication where different people’s cultural value conflicts. Therefore, it is highly necessary to better our understanding of it to achieve effective communication.

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Nature of Silence

As I have emphasized, silence is not an interruption of communication, rather, it is a means of communication and it is a language. Broadly speaking, according to Kwal and Gamble, it can be classified into seven categories

1) body language or kinetics (facial expressions, posture, eye gaze and eye contact, and gestures);

) clothing and artifactual communication;

) voice or paralanguage (including pitch, volume, rate and pauses);

4) space and distance, or proxemic factors (including both the space that exists between us when we talk to each other and the way we organize space in our homes, offices, and communities);

5) color;

6) time, or chronemics;

7) touch, or haptics.

Therefore, silence is multichannel. However, since it covers too much scope, this paper only deals with one kind of silence, the nonvocal one.

Functions of Silence

Silence can be classified into three groups according to its different functions according to Bruneau.

1) Psycholinguistic Silence----Both, speaker and listener of speech need to gain time to construct mental thoughts into proper words and grammatical forms, or to interpret the message. This is often done by hesitations which are forms of silence (Bruneau, 17p1). For example, in an interview, the interviewee is generally given some time to think before s/he is asked to answer the questions. Therefore, they include psychological activities. Since generally speaking, if people take some time to think about the question before answering it, it also shows that the speakers are quite serious with it, therefore, it is also employed by tactful speakers. However, it does not contain a potential source of misunderstanding in an intercultural conversation as it only describes cognitive processes and has no differences among people involved and the length of this silence largely depends on the length of sentences and the complexity of the topic. The longer the sentence is, the more complex the topic is, the longer the silence or hesitation is.

) interactive silences--- they are pausal interruptions in a conversation and which tend to be longer than hesitations. Bruneau noted that interactive silences differ from psycholinguistic silence mainly in each participants conscious recognition of the degree and manner in which he is expected to participate in communicative exchange.(17 p15). A long interactive silence can signify that one is careful or has an emotionally close relationship with his or her counterpart or, he wants to diverse the topic or information. Moreover interactive silence can express deep emotions and it is used as a form of social control. For example, in order to give others a big surprise, we may, before telling others the good news, just say “say what, I have a piece of good news to tell you.?And then, simply keep silent for a short while. In public speeches and in classroom teaching, it is a well-employed technique to achieve user’s various goals. For example, in order to attract the attention of some noisy students in the classroom, teachers may not need to raise their voices to compete with them, instead, they may suddenly keep silent, and the noisy students, since they don’t know what happens, will immediately stop talking. Interactive silence can be problematic in intercultural communication, since different culture has difference tolerance of hesitation. Generally speaking, eastern countries have more tolerance of it. Therefore, when westerners communicate with easterners, they need to be very careful not to interrupt them. The following case may help illustrate this.

Athabaskans accept a slightly longer pause between sentences than do English speakers. When an English speaker has finished a sentence he expects the Athabaskan to take the burden of speak within a certain time. Due to different systems of pausing between turns, the Athabaskan would reply later than the English expects. The English might think that his interlocutor does not want to speak and feels free to continue. But at the same time, the Athabaskan has just been waiting his regular length of time before answering in order not to interrupt the speaker. If the conversation continues this way, the Athabaskan will not be able to start talking or to make any comments while the English speaker goes on and on. The conversation seems to be for both sides rather unsatisfying. It can moreover lead to negative assumptions by the interlocutors. The Athabaskan might think that the English speaker just wants to present his point of view and that he is not interested in the other one. In contrast the English speaker could assume that the Athabaskan is not interested in his opinion or, even worse, that he is not able to follow him intellectually. A similar situation can occur when the Athabaskan intends to say a series of sentences. After having finished the first one, he will wait his regular length of time before continuing. The English speaker will now most likely interrupt him because he thinks that the Athabaskan has finished due to the length of the pause. In this context, the English speaker might feel that the Athabaskan cannot pronounce a whole coherent idea and vice versa the Athabaskan feels interrupted and not being able to say what he intended to say.

) .Socio-cultural silence---Cultural communication patterns include not only rules concerning the use of verbal expressions but determine also situations in which entire social and cultural orders select silence in order to express their intentions or feelings. Socio-cultural silence may help understanding cultural communication patterns much better than spoken words. Basso stated that an adequate ethnography of communication should not confine itself exclusively to the analysis of choice within the verbal repertoires. It should also (...) specify those conditions under which the members of the society regularly decide to refrain from verbal behavior altogether. (Basso, 10p05)

From the above definition, we therefore come to realize that interactive silence and psycholinguistic silence are more or less international. (The difference between interactive silence and psycholinguistic silence is that, the former refers to the silence when speaker knows what he is going to talk about, while the latter refers the silence when speaker is thinking what he is going to talk about. The former is done strategically, while the latter is done obligedly.) However, socio-cultural silence is more culture-bond and specific. It is a major potential cause of misunderstanding or breakdown in intercultural communication since cultural norms that guide communication are very different and they influence people subconsciously. In the following part, we then, take a good look at this factor. First, we are going to be familiar with the meaning of silence in some cultural communities.

The Meaning of Silence

Depending on the situation, silence can mean, culture, for example,

respect Like, in many cultures, in a piano concert you are not supposed to keep silence till the end of it.

Approval Like in Chinese, when you propose to a girl, and she just says nothing and gives you a shy smile, that means approval. We call it tacit consent. (moxu in Chinese)

Disapproval In cultures where politeness is more valued than straightforwardness, people keep silent when they disapprove something.

Neutrality Like in France, silence is a form of neutral communication to keep a respectful distance from strangers.

Ignorance People of some culture are very likely to keep silent when they are asked questions they don’t know how to answer.

Sympathy People in some countries are liable to keep silent when you tell them your tragedy. However, don’t misunderstand them by saying they are cold-blooded, for silence is their way of sharing your pains and sufferings.

Apart from it, of course, silence can mean thinking time, or speaking strategy in interactive silence and psychological silence, since it is comparatively easy to understand, we are not going to discuss in detail.

Explanation of Difference in Silence

High context culture vs low context culture

Why there is so much difference in silence in different cultures? Edward Hall explains this by dividing culture into high context culture and low context culture. A high context culture, he explains “A high context (HC) communication or message is one in which most of the information is already in the person, while very little is in the coded, explicitly transmitted part of the message.?176, p7). Countries of High context are China, Japan, Finland, Vietnam, and Korea. In high context culture, therefore, meaning is based on an indirect style emphasizing the implicit meaning of words in a given social context. The onus is on the reader or listener to decode the meaning from the socio-linguistic context and not for the writer or speaker to send an explicit message that can be understood by all and without any difficulty. Speaker from high context culture generally will not ask his listeners whether they have understood, or even if s/he asks, the listeners are not supposed to ask any for silence can show respect toward the speaker, even when they don’t understand, they are supposed to nod and keep silent.

A low context culture, on the contrary, is the one in which the mass of the information is vested in the explicit code.?(176, p.7). Countries of low context culture are Germany, Greek, Arab, Native America and so on. In low context, therefore, everything is plain and presented white and black. Therefore, meaning is based on the personal and explicit message, and if the reader or listener fail to understand, it is the responsibility of the speaker or writer. In low context culture, after a speaker finishes his speech, he generally will leave some time for questions, and listeners are really supposed to ask whatever questions.

From these two definitions, we know, in high-context culture, since words are only partly responsible for the information it is not valued as much as in low context culture. Thus, people turn to more non-verbal communications, and silence, consequently plays an important role in this community. Furthermore, since silence provides assistance to verbal communication, it is attributed to more positive meanings, like respect, acceptance etc. However, since in low context culture, message relies on words, and they are fully responsible for the information, so silence, the stop of using words, is given more negative meanings, like ignorance, incompetence, and failure.

In intercultural communication, due to the different emphasis people assign to silence, and the unconscious influence of culture, people tend to judge silence of other cultures according to their own value, which results in misunderstanding or even communication breakdown. For example, an American teacher who teaches oral English in Japan feels just mad when, every time, he asks his Japanese students to answer questions, they simply keep silent, even if the answer is very obvious. To make him madder is, when he asks whether they understand him or not, they nod their heads, and then, when they are asked to speak or practice, they don’t know. I think, if the American teacher had more ideas about cultural difference, the problem will become very easy to solve. Because, on the part of Japanese students, the fact that they keep silent doesn’t mean they don’t know the answer, like in American classroom. On the contrary, many of them are waiting for the teacher to call their names. It is also true with the second case. Students from Japanese culture nod their heads to show respect toward teacher and that don’t mean they have understood. The key problem in this case is, in the teacher’s culture, words are needed whereas in the students?culture, silence can serve the same purpose.

However, a question may pop in our minds why in high context culture, people use words to convey message while in low context culture, people use silence more often to convey message? There are several explanations for it.

Words vs silence. If we take a better look at the countries of high context culture and those of low context culture, we will realize that, in low context culture, words are valued, while in high context culture, silence is valued. In Greek, for example, people began the formal study of rhetoric as early as 5 BC with the Sophists, followed by Socrates Plato and Aristotle. From that on, they never neglected the importance of speech. In many western countries like America, the important status of words can be reflected by one sentence from the Bible ‘In the beginning was the word.?Word and world are treated equally. Therefore, in order to explore the truism of the world, they need to use words as often as possible. However, in most Asian countries, words are regarded as evil. For example, in Japan, there was one old saying ‘Out of mouth comes all evil.?In China, people are told to ?be quick in action, and careful in speech? Laotzi also said ‘Those who know don’t speak, and those who don’t know speak? On the other hand, the attitude toward silence is just reversed. In low context countries like America and Greek, silence is regarded as an interruption of communication, and people who keep silent in communication are labeled as “uncooperative.?However, in high context countries, silence is considered a virtue and it is a natural phenomenon and the meaning of silence is explored to the greatest possible degree. For example, Asian people keep silent in front of old people or authority to show their respect; they keep silent when they are happy and sad depending on the situation.

Individualism vs collectivism. Collectivism and individualism also play a role in the difference understanding of silence. In countries where individualism is valued, people are not likely to think from other’s perspective. In addition, their attitude toward conflict is more positive. Therefore, they treat silence as destructive. However, in countries where collectivism is valued, people are more likely to think in other’s stand, and harmony is what they want to achieve in communication and conflicts are destructive, therefore, they will not speak out the dissatisfaction and simply keep silent.

After knowing the difference of silence, and the cause of the difference, we therefore are able to know what we should do to understand the meaning of silence in intercultural communication. There are some suggestions.

Suggestions for Correct Understanding of Silence

?understand the diverse nature of culture and respect other’s culture People need to know culture and culture are different and other cultures are as good as theirs.

?be more tolerant Since in some culture, silence can be very long, people should be more tolerant and don’t interrupt others in between. Tolerance also means people need to tolerate the differences in communication means.

?avoid stereotyping Since culture can’t be judged good or bad, people can’t consider other’s culture according their cultural thinking patterns. Instead, they should learn to be Romans when they are in Rome.

?try to read between lines In some culture words are not as important as that in other culture, and everything is not plain, therefore, people need to read between lines to know the illocutionary act.

?recourse to other non-verbal means In communication, there are bound to be many signs to help people understand the meaning of silence, and these recourses should never be neglected.

?ask for clarification It is not a very good way, since, in some culture, people want to establish rapport inside the group, therefore, they leave many things unsaid, if people from other group can not understand and ask for clarification, they will not be considered as insiders. But, it is always better to know the truth, so, if it is a “have to? they should better do it.


Silence can cause misunderstanding and even breakdown in intercultural communication since silence can be culture-bond. However, if we understand the different meaning of it in different culture, it will become a lot easy.


Bruneau,T.J. (17), Communicative Silences Forms and Functions, in Mortensen, C.D.

Basso, K. (10) To give up on words Silence in Western Apache cultures, in Carbough, D.

Scollon, R./Wong-Scollon, S. Athabaskan-English interethnic communication, in

Carbough, D.

Fan Z, Y (001) Silence Langue, and communication Journal of Shandong Normal University 6(1) -4

Hall, E, T. (176), Beyond Culture, Anchor Press/Doubleday, Garden City, New York,

Song, L (18) the different voices of silence Journal Heilongjiang University, Vol. 1 pp56-57

Yang, P (16) the pragmatic function and cultural connotation of silence Shandong foreign language teaching 6 () 78-80

A Brief History of Rhetoric and Composition http//

Nonverbal Communication Silent Language Speaks http//

Communication across culture http//

Differences in communication styles between cultures http//

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