In 1963, Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel sang about The Sounds of Silence. A West African proverb states, "Silence is also speech." English poet Thomas Carlyle translated the phrase "Silence is Golden" from German in his book Sartor Resartus in 1831. In the 6th century, Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu claimed that "Silence is a source of great strength.”
Clearly, silence is something of import to cultures from around the world. Yet, do we know what it means? There is no universal definition. How silence is used depends upon the culture as well as the situation.
How Much Silence Is Acceptable?
Many Asians are comfortable with a minute or two of silence; while Canadians and Americans are generally uncomfortable with more than a second of silence in conversations. This is exaggerated in cultures such as Italians and Latin Americans where people often interrupt or talk over each other, so there is never silence.
Silence When Asked a Question
In many Asian countries, it is considered polite to pause for a few seconds before answering a question to show that you have reflected upon the question and your response, thus demonstrating sufficient gravitas. Contrasting to this are many Western countries where silence is viewed as a void that must be filled. In these cultures, if they cannot answer a question immediately, people are concerned that the speaker may think that they do not know the answer.
Imagine the confusion this could cause in a conversation between a Malaysian and an American. When the Malaysian doesn't respond immediately, the American says something else, hoping to elicit a response from the Malaysian; while the Malaysian is waiting for silence so that they may rejoin the discussion.
Silence When Speaking in a Second Language
Have you ever tried speaking or writing in a language other than your own? It can be a challenge. Many years ago, when I was working in Indonesia, I would write memos in English and then translate them into Bahasa Indonesia. Although I could speak well enough to make myself understood, I could not create nuanced communication in Bahasa without this layer of translation.
When speaking with someone for whom English is not their first language, the person may need time to consider the question, frame and answer, and then translate their thoughts into English before responding. If you do not know this, you may inadvertently interrupt the silence and ask the same question in a different way, thinking the person did not understand your first query.
Silence in Listening Cultures
Asian and Nordic countries have listening cultures where silence denotes careful thought. These cultures think that pauses (silence) in a conversation keep the interchange calm. In some cases, silence can be a way to allow everyone to save face. In these cultures, what is not said can be as important as what has been. In group-oriented cultures, it is polite to remain silent when your opinion does not agree with that of the group.
Since silence has many meanings in listening cultures, it is important to de-code silence in each situation. In Japan, if you are making a presentation to a group and the most senior Japanese closes his eyes and is silent, it can mean conflicting things. His silence could mean agreement with what the presenter is saying; however, it could also mean that he does not want to publicly disagree. How would you know the difference?
Generally, the optimal approach is to slow down your speech and make sure you are speaking in a way that is not too complicated and doesn’t use too many idioms. You might then try asking a question to confirm understanding.
Silence in Speaking Cultures
Some Western cultures think silence is a sign of lack of engagement in the conversation or even disagreement. Americans, for example, often see silence as indicating the person is indifferent, angry or disagreeing with them. The silence confuses and confounds them since it is so different from expected behavior. Many are even embarrassed by silence and rush to fill the space so they are no longer uncomfortable.
Silence in Hierarchical Cultures
In hierarchical cultures, speaking is often the purview of the most senior or oldest person. Others are expected to remain silent and only speak when spoken to or asked to corroborate information. This can be quite unnerving to observe if you are from a more hierarchical culture and you watch your normally loquacious colleague become strangely silent.
Silence as a Negotiating Tool
Given the different ways silence is used in China (a listening culture) and Canada (a speaking culture), you can envision a situation where the Chinese remain silent when the Canadian makes a bid. Uncomfortable with the pause, the Canadian speaks again, lowering the bid since they misunderstood the Chinese silence as unhappiness with the offer. In this case, silence can put the Chinese in a more powerful position.
Handling Silence in Meetings
When attending a multi-cultural meeting, understanding how different cultures respond to silence can help communication flow. If the majority of the attendees are from a culture where silence is discouraged, they will understand that their colleagues who do not speak up immediately do have something valuable to offer, they merely need some silence before joining the discussion. Conversely, if the majority of the participants are from a country where silence is expected, they will understand that their colleagues who are not letting them get a word in are not being disrespectful.