Silence, what is it really saying?

Silence. What does it mean to you? Silence is something that we never talk about but it plays an important role in our social and professional lives. Silence has more meanings than you might think and if you are working in an international environment, its significance can really effect your interactions across cultures, especially in business.

This week on my podcast “Living La Belle Vie” I have been exploring the nuances of silence with Jamie Gelbtuch who is the founder of Cultural Mixology, a company that designs and facilitates programs that enhance cultural competencies. She has also written a book calledThe Role of Resiliency in a Global Lifestyle. You can check out the conversation here:

What silence means is different for all of us and means different things in different countries. So, how can we learn to understand and use those differences? Let’s explore those nuances together. 

There are many expressions about silence that come from different corners of the world.

One example is “silence is golden.” But why? What would your interpretation of this quote be? For me, it means it’s precious because it’s rare. As an American, silence is not treasured in our everyday interactions. We leave that for times of meditation. Silence makes Americans uncomfortable. I think we made up the expression “awkward silence”. When we want to be engaged with someone and they are just looking at us silently, all types of things start to go through our head:

They’re not listening.

They have nothing to say, I guess they are not interested.

We have nothing in common.

They have nothing to say because they don’t know anything.

They don’t want to participate.

They don’t like me and could care less to speak.

What we have to keep in mind, especially when dealing with people from other cultures, is that there is no one ‘right’ way to look at things. One expression that I find really helpful is “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” It encourages me to look for many points of view.

So what else could silence mean?

Well, I know for me when I first moved to France and didn’t speak the language, I was silent most of the time because I had no idea what people were saying, and I had no idea how to respond!

  1. People may need time to translate in their head :  When we are speaking with someone whose mother tongue is not the same as ours, they may need time to just figure out what the hell you are saying, and how to find the words to respond. Translating takes time. If you do not know this, you may fill the silence and keep speaking. You could be overwhelming the person with more to translate, and more to figure out in response to all the information you just threw at them. So if you are speaking to people in their second or third languages, slow…it…down… and give people time to digest your words. Leave space for silence.
  1. The silent treatment may actually be respectful treatment : Depending on the culture, silence can be a sign of respect. Many Asian countries for example, which can be very hierarchical give respect to the person speaking or an elder, etc.  Silence could also mean that someone agrees with you and has nothing to add, or they don’t agree and will wait for a private moment to address the issue to be respectful. Even in our relationships when our partner gives us the silent treatment, maybe they are keeping their mouth shut because they don’t want to say something in the heat of emotions or the moment that could do more damage than good. Sometimes, we just have to allow silence and let it reveal to us what it means without casting any judgement at all.
  1. Silence can be used as a negotiating tool : Silence can be extremely efficient when we are negotiating. When one person offers something and you don’t respond, or take a while to respond, that can make a person who is uncomfortable with silence think something is wrong with the offer. They may keep talking, adding things and adjusting things just to get a response from you. I know for me, when I am negotiating or making a deal to hire a service, if I am not saying anything it is because I haven’t heard anything that is worth a response. When I become interested, I will engage. Silence in negotiations can often put you in a more powerful position.
  1. I may just be listening : It’s called being an active listener. A lot of the time, when someone is speaking, we are thinking more about how we are going to respond than listening to what they have to say in its entirety. When people are silent they may be listening profoundly to what you are saying and taking it in for thought before they respond. In some Asian and Nordic countries pauses in a conversation help to keep the interchange calm. Silence can be a way to allow everyone a chance to speak fully and finish a point before interrupting.
  1. I may just be comfortable in your presence : I can remember when I was younger sitting in restaurants looking at an old couple and seeing that they have been together for a long time and they are just sitting there not saying anything. I used to think, ‘I don’t ever want to be like that with my partner’. Then, I got married and I understood sometimes you and your partner (or even a close friend) are happy to just be with someone and you don’t have to say shit. You just get to be and everything is alright. With a partner or friend you can shut off and just enjoy being together whether you’re talking or not.

So What does silence mean to you? And what does it mean in your culture. I would love to hear your opinion in the comments.