The meaning of Silence
Silence. It is awkward for some, peaceful for others. Silence, and its meaning changes as you move from country to country, or culture to culture.
Experiencing culture is an inevitable part of traveling. At some point you are going to find yourself struck with what or how people eat, their marriage practices, their worship patterns or their clothes. A more subtle challenge is though ‘being understood’.
Traveling itself is a great way to understand how communication patterns are different across the world. In our story If you can’t learn language, learn from the language we learnt about how language is a powerful window to understand the values of a culture. Today we look at the window of ‘silence’, and how just like words, it changes from one land to the other.
Let’s talk about silence:
The Japanese: You cannot talk about silence, without talking about the Japanese first. Silence is indeed the most effective tool of communication among the Japanese. They use it to show disagreement, to save people from shame , to avoid conflict and to show respect. They value silence more than the noisy words. After a meeting, a japanese audience staying silent during the Q&A round would imply their unacceptance for the proposals made during the meeting. It is upon the presenter to understand the unacceptance, and be saved from the shame that could come with it. A silent Japanese is showing respect by avoiding conflict and simply building trust with the other person to follow. On the other hand, silence is also associated with truthfulness. Derived from the beliefs of Zen Buddhism, the japanese believe that silence is the only way to learn the most crucial lessons in life. Silence is more than just an absence of words, it is a window to the values at the core of Japanese culture. This is just a slice of the role of silence in the country, and you understand it more, only when you experience it.
Listening vs Speaking cultures: Though the Japanese have their own special place for silence, most cultures are somewhere on the spectrum of being a completely listening culture to being a speaking culture.
What this means is some cultures believe that communication happens when more words are spoken more quickly, while others believe that listening silently, taking breaks and pauses, or choosing not to speak are crucial for effective communication to take place.
Before we read ahead, think about where do you see yourself. Just you, your individual self. When do you feel heard? When someone immediately responds to what you have said or when they stay silent for a while or choose fewer slower words. What does your ideal relationship look like - Do you want to spend the nights in silence looking at each other, or doing your independent work, or do you want to have as many meaningful conversations, and talk about everything and anything that happened in your day?
We all are somewhere on the spectrum, and so are our cultures.
In Asian and Nordic cultures, it is appropriate for a few seconds before you respond, as it indicates you put some careful thought into answering the question. It is a way to show your respect. There are listening cultures. They would rather stay silent then to tell someone they disagree with their opinion. In Western cultures, Silence is interpreted as extremely uncomfortable. It indicates a lack of engagement or a sign of indifference. Every second of silence is filled up with words as soon as possible. They are also more likely to cut people mid sentence.
Hierarchy: Coming to the most interesting observation, we have ever come across. Silence or use of excessive speech are indicators of hierarchy in most cultures. The individual who is perceived to be the most senior or most respected often has more freedom to speak, have the last word, or the right to never get cut off. Usually vocal members choose to remain silent, if they respect the hierarchy. What is fascinating though, is that cultures might use silence to establish or re-change these hierarchy. In certain tribes, the leader would speak only when it is absolutely necessary, but when he or she does, it is the last word.
What do you notice around you? Are the perceived leaders the most talkative? Does speaking or contributing more, put your friends or colleagues in a higher social status in the group? Does someone who never speaks also manages to get their way, all the time? Or does the opinion of an extremely silent member, become the most important when spoken out loud?
Though these practices have a history of their own, we carry traces of it, in our personality every single day. We perceive people as arrogant, smart, contributing, wise, and so much more, depending on simply how they speak or how much they speak.
When you meet your localite on your travel adventures, pay attention to the way they talk to you and other locals. Understand not only what they say, but what they don’t. Ask questions. Most localites would love to tell you about the manners and nuances of their communication styles, and even help you to adopt these styles during your days in the city.
There is no right or wrong way to use silence. The key to successful communication is to understand what it means to others.
Thanks for reading.
Have a good day!
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