Among all the potential miscues possible in intercultural business communication, there may be none more confounding than conversational silence – especially when working remotely. It doesn’t take more than a few moments of silence before some team members might begin to wonder: Did the audio cut out? Is someone on mute? Was I dropped from the call? But not all cultures might be quick to jump to those conclusions.
The meaning of silence in the midst of a business discussion varies from culture to culture and, critically, within a culture, based on the context in which you encounter it. North Americans will rush to fill a silence before even two seconds have passed because silence is usually seen as a negative. In fact, silence makes people in the US so uncomfortable that daily news reporters are taught to use it as an interview tool – i.e., ask the tough question and be quiet. The interviewee must say anything to fill that offensive silence.
Compare that communication style across cultures to Japan, where people allow much longer periods of silence. That reflects the Japanese cultural concept of haragei, the idea that the best communication is when one doesn’t speak at all. Of course, Japanese do speak – it’s just that they listen more carefully, too, giving themselves time to contemplate incoming messages and formulate the best way to respond.
Between those two ends of the intercultural communication spectrum lie a wide range of perceptions about silence. In business, we ignore those differences at our peril. Imagine that you are a North American working with someone from Japan. North America is among many cultures with a direct communication style, where people often tend to speak more than listen. Each time your Japanese colleague is silent you jump in and start talking. Do you think that cross-culture conversation will go well? (It won’t. Culture experts share many stories of sales lost when North Americans interpreted Japanese silence as an objection and lost negotiating leverage by speaking up too quickly.)
I’m not suggesting that the solution is for the North American to stop talking. Instead, it’s important for both parties in a cross-cultural business conversation to be aware of how the other perceives silence, and accommodate those perceptions in a way that respects both.
But before you can develop cultural awareness, you must first know what to be aware of. A good place to start is with intercultural communication training, which teaches how conversational silence is perceived in many cultures.
Intercultural Communication Question 1: Is the Silence Positive or Negative?
Silence is seen as a positive in Japan, because it suggests that the listener is giving careful consideration to what’s been said. In other words, silence is a sign of respect. In Finland, silence communicates engagement – it shows you are paying careful attention and thinking about what’s been said. In Africa, silence suggests that people are comfortable enough with one another not to need to fill the space with noise; silence conveys enjoyment. It also conveys the notion that you want to hear – and understand – the entire message before you respond.
Those perspectives contrast with the negative connotations ascribed to silence in North America. There, it’s usually understood to indicate confusion, displeasure or disinterest. Silence is also seen as a negative in Spain, where it’s commonly used to express shame or distrust.
Question 2: Is Silence Common in a Culture’s Communication Style?
Silence is far more common in high-context cultures, which rely on implicit communication and non-verbal cues. So, silence becomes a natural part of the vocabulary. High-context cultures include most African, Asian, Latin American, and Arab cultures, as well as some European cultures. Silence is obviously less common in low-context cultures, in which communication is direct and words are paramount. In addition to North America, Australia and Western Europe are generally low-context cultures. Naturally, there are variations within these generalizations. In Italy, where it’s socially acceptable to interrupt and talk over others, conversational silence is almost nonexistent.
Question 3: Are There Multiple Possible Meanings for Silence?
Just as words can mean more than one thing depending on how they are said, silence can also mean multiple things. When that happens, we must rely on other non-verbal cues to discern meaning. In North America, for example, we’re likely to understand silence as displeasure if it’s accompanied by a frown or to see it as disinterest if the listener isn’t making eye contact. Natives of the same culture inherently understand these multiple possibilities and search for other cues. Non-natives in an intercultural business communication may have a harder time.
While it can be hard to pick up on body language in a virtual meeting, the fundamental lesson here is to devote serious study to silence as part of your preparation for any cross-cultural business dealings. Conversational silence is not merely the absence of words – it is, in many cases, a deliberate substitute for words. It defines relationships and conveys meaning. And, in many ways – regardless of our cultural framework – it can facilitate communication. Silence allows for contemplation, gives us time to be sure we understand what’s been said, and to formulate our thoughts (particularly when we are conversing in something other than our native language). Finally, it gives us space to process our emotions before we explore what we think about the topic at hand.
How will you know what silence means when you’re communicating in a multicultural environment? Yes, sometimes all it means is that someone was still on mute before they started speaking. But we can all benefit from learning more about the range of styles in direct- and indirect-communication cultures so we can better identify what silence can mean in a given context.
Of course, as valuable as it is to understand the diversity of cultural norms, it’s important to always keep in mind that people are still individuals. My passport says I’m an American, but when it comes to conversational silence I’d prefer you interact with me as if I were a Finn.