Just as shared language does not imply shared meaning, shared silence does not either. Silence can be full of significance, answers, or nothing at all. It is a critical tool that impacts the rhythm of communication and its myriad implications are worth considering in your next cross cultural interaction.
1. Silence may signal respect.
In cultures that skew more hierarchical (e.g. China, Mexico), silence commonly occurs out of respect. An employee may sit quietly in a meeting without directly challenging the error or opinion of a superior out of deference to the chain of command. “Saving face” (both yours and the other person’s) and maintaining interpersonal harmony takes priority over expressing a personal opinion or being right.
2. Silence often occurs during language translations.
Working globally implies that someone will likely be using a non-native language to do business. Therefore, even with a good command of the language, people may need time to mentally translate what they heard back to a native language, think of their response, and then translate that back to the language of business. The space inbetween translations shows up as silence. As the listener, be especially mindful of this time allowance when communicating by phone where other non-verbal cues are lacking. As the speaker, let your listener know that you are processing the information so you can reply accurately.
3. Silence may be interpreted as a lack of interest, attention, or thought.
Culture drives our motivation to participate (or not) in meetings. For example, throughout much of Europe, you participate only when you are credible on a topic. When you are not, silence is perfectly acceptable. In the US, on the other hand, participation is a must all the time. It indicates that you are present, interested, and engaged in the topic at hand. As a result, a lack of participation tends to be viewed negatively. So it’s important to find a way to speak up, even if just by asking a question or supporting an idea that has already been presented.
4. Silence can be a powerful negotiation tactic.
Given the variations in when and why cultures may tend toward silence, those which are more comfortable managing it end up with a distinct advantage in negotiations. The ability to recognize that the other party may be thinking, translating, or simply strategically leaving space allows enables you to more comfortably wait before jumping in with a counter offer that weakens your position and ultimately stems from discomfort. Pay particular attention if your cultural lens views silence as negative.
5. Silence may mean nothing.
If we haven’t already, let’s not overthink it! Sometimes silence speaks, and sometimes it simply says nothing at all.
While we may not all have the time, talent, or inclination to learn another language, we can all consider challenging ourselves to master the art of reading and speaking through silence. We can notice it around us and be mindful of the meaning we assign it. We can practice speaking up (to fill it) or speaking less (to respect it). In the words of American writer Elbert Hubbard, “He who does not understand your silence will probably not understand your words.”