ConversationMatters

Golden Silence and Leaden Silence

from Best Uses of Voice and Body Language

by Loren Ekroth, Ph.D.

Many conversers are afraid of silence because they interpret it to mean something in the communication has gone awry. But that’s not necessarily so. It is true that some periods of silence between talking can be troublesome. For example, when talk is expected from the hearer and intentionally withheld by the speaker. We have all experienced various negative silences that could be called awkward, appalled, embarrassed, defensive, and fearful silences. Let’s call these leaden silences.

However, there are also silences that are golden, such as confident, comfortable, reflective, peaceful, or respectful silences. Such silences can be helpful tools for enhancing the communication and to promote and maintain the existing relationship.

Some Positive Uses of Silence During Conversation
  1. To give hearers time to think before responding.
  2. To show respect for the speaker.
  3. To create focus and concentration.
  4. To convey deep feelings that words cannot express.

When I learned that a fellow church member had lost her husband to cancer, I approached her after services. She was surrounded by others, some of whom were talking to her with well-intentioned phrases like “He won’t have to suffer any more.” I could have said such phrases for this dear friend, but I sensed that words would actually detract from what I wanted to convey. When it was my turn, I looked her softly in the eyes and gave her a long hug while saying only “I love you.”

Culture Studies Reveal Different Meanings of Silence

As we have come to know through studies of intercultural communication, silence can have quite different uses and meanings in different cultures. In many native American societies, silence is regarded as respectful, even sacred. As Robert T. Oliver has pointed out in his substantial study of Eastern rhetoric, “silence in Asia has commonly been entirely acceptable, whereas in the West silence has generally been considered socially disagreeable.”

Edward T. Hall, the eminent anthropologist and author of The Silent Language, was among the first to help the general reader to understand the wide spectrum of nonverbal communication in various cultures. He showed us, for example, that U.S. and British societies are word-cultures while many other societies in the world rely more open non-verbal cues and signs — including silence.

Meaning Is Derived from the Context

To grasp the meaning of any period of interpersonal silence, we must have an understanding of the context in which the silence occurs. Context includes at least the relationships involved, what the occasion and purpose are for the communication, and the cultural rules and expectations that apply. In this way we would know that in Japan, unlike the U.S., a man of few words is trusted more than a man of many words. Similarly, among the mestizo males in Mexico, the silent male is one who is strong and can be trusted.

Silence as a Communication Tool

The masterful conversationalist is one able to use silence as a powerful tool. To do so takes practice because we are such a talkative culture. When we become comfortable with being silent while we are fully engaged, other speakers will tend to be comfortable as well. Sometimes we may have to say a few words so that our silence is not misinterpreted, such as “I’d like to take a moment to think about all that’s been said so far.”

It is often said that many people seem to talk past each other instead of really hearing one another. I believe that one cause of talking-past is an intolerance of the silence needed to hear and digest what is said and to reflect upon it before responding. If we feel we’re expected to respond immediately, we will generally be reactive rather than reflective. The bottom line? See the positive functions of silence in conversation and hone your ability to use it well.