A silence can say alot

November 6, 2011 by
Filed under: Communication 

When we have a conversation, sometimes a silence drops. And it always has a meaning, even when nothing is said. We can skip words and complete sentences and still know what isnt said.  So its not remarkable that there are alot of silences, and all with different meanings.

Every one knows that a conversation is more than a collection of words. The intonation, the speed of speaking and gestures made are a big part of our daily communcation as well. So if you compare this nonverbal communication with silences, they may not always be remarkable, or you dont notice them at all, but they are part of the conversation. Sometimes a silence can be a replacement for a whole sentence. Here is an example you might recognize:

At a given day at work your going towards an important deadline. Then a collegue steps in, but your not in the mood for him right now. He asks if he is interrupting. You dont say anything and just continue typing, without even looking up. He looks at you for a few seconds, and then leaves your office again.

Its not very polite not to answer a question, so if you read between the lines here, you see a small arguement, but with the use of a silence. You use the silence against your collegue, like you are saying: ‘Leave me alone, cant you see i am busy?’ The collegue that walks in expects an answer from you when he asks a question. But instead of that, you just ignore him. So nothing is said in this example, but still your collegue knows the meaning of this silence.

The expressive silence

In situations where power is used to express the difference in positions, like at work, we see the expressive silence in conversations. Or in a class at school, where the teacher stands before the class being silent. He does this just to make clear who’s in charge. Or he tries to get attention, using his position as a teacher and the slience he drops as a tool of his power.

But it can happen the other way around, when a student doesnt want to listen to his teacher. The teacher asks him a question, but in stead of answering him, which would be considered normal in this situation, he says nothing. For the teacher this can be a very awkward situation, since the student’s silence is undermining his power at that moment.

The inviting silence

This use of silence we are all aware of. When you ask a questin, you drop a silence, because you expect an answer. But you can use it as a very effective tool as well. In therapy for example, a therapist often uses this, just to get more information.

Some one asks you a question. For example: ‘How war your day?’ Often we counter this question with ‘Well, it was ok, nothing special’. When you answered, you expect the conversation to move on. But if the person that asks you this question says nothing, and just keeps looking at you, you dont feel at ease. Or at least its not according to plan. You expect to move on, anothern question being asked, but not a silence. So often you pick it up again and continue talking. And then more information comes out. Maybe it wasnt a normal day at all, but you had a discussion with your chef at work, something you didnt want to talk about in the first place, but the silence dropped, and that was kinda inviting to keep talking.

The reconciling silence

The longer people know each other, the more silence can be dropped in their conversations. Usually people think that talking is the best way to show you want to keep a relation healthy, and silence is used to break a relation or that it is ending.

And the silences can be a good indicator to estimate the value of a relation. If you just met a person, lets say you date for the second time with a girl, and the silences that drop feel ‘good’ it is an indicator you feel well with that person around you. If you for example meet with some collegue’s, often the conversation is kept going, to avoid the ‘painfull’ silences. Here you will the urge to keep the conversation going, while being with  a person you really like, it doesnt matter if a silence falls in a conversation.

Staying silent can be a good instrument to avoid an escalation of conflicts. Words that arent being spoken can do no harm.

Small talk

And then there are the conversations which are called small talk: chats with your neighbour, collegue’s and vague acquaintances you meet in the supermarket. This isnt real communication, but more of a way to show that you dont want to break the relation. ‘We should get dinner together’ isnt always a litteral invitation, but more of  a way to tell the other person that you like the relation you have, and you dont wanna break it.

Thou people who dont mind to drop silences in conversations, find these small talks shallow and insincere.