Originally uploaded by amaroak - quite a life
Our mission at WAL is to facilitate cross-cultural communication. But is all communication achieved through speech? No, people communicate through silence as well as spoken language. It is a way to express oneself non-verbally and it can be very powerful.
Different cultures understand silence in different ways. In Western and Middle Eastern cultures, people tend to be uncomfortable with longer silences and may even view extended silence as asocial or anti-social.
Contrarily, in many eastern and Native American cultures, longer silences are the norm and carry positive connotations of respectfulness, discretion or truthfulness. Negative connotations such as embarrassment or defiance are also possible. I once had a Japanese student who found her employer to be demeaning. At the time, she could not quit work, so she handled the situation by refusing to speak at all until she was able to leave the job six months later.
While a Westerner starts to feel discomfort after 6 or 7 seconds of silence, a Japanese speaker may be quite comfortable after 20 seconds. As a result, the length of silent periods may cause someone outside of the culture to misinterpret what is occurring. For example, a Western teacher may infer that their Asian student doesn’t know the answer or is not willing to speak. A Japanese speaker, on the other hand, may find a western speaker rude or foolish when they jump into commenting without much pause.
Silence can speak volumes, so they say…