The meaning of silence in different cultures

Silence is golden, as the saying goes. But silence has many meanings in cross-cultural communication.

Silence can be used to intimidate; or to save face; to show respect; or it can simply suggest that the other person is relaxed enough in your company to enjoy a quiet moment. Misinterpreting the meaning of silence in different cultures, though, and you could be on your way to losing an important business deal.

Silence in Japanese culture

“I was part of the EMEA team when the Japanese bank I was working for took over an American bank,” says a former VP of marketing. “There were weekly project calls scheduled with representation from both EMEA and Asia-Pac marketing teams. The former comprised about 60% ex-pat New Yorkers and the latter around 80% Japanese.

“The usual preparations were generally in place, updates and agendas circulated ahead of time. Inevitably one of the EMEA team would open the call, but I was always very conscious that it was dominated by our side, EMEA.  Towards the end of the call, my American colleague, keen to chalk up some action points, would then pose direct questions around timing and commitment to his Japanese colleagues. They were completely silent. What followed after that point always made me feel uncomfortable, not just because of the general awkwardness, but because I knew that my colleague was taking this silence as acceptance to our proposal.

“I later learned from another colleague who’d spent time in Japan that the silence had more to do with not being comfortable with the proposal than anything else and that in order to save face, this was the preferred communication of disagreement.  Because of this misunderstanding, the project took six months longer than anticipated and the compromises were significant.”

“There is no right or wrong way to use silence. The key to successful communication, though, is to understand what it means to others.

Silence in Asian culture

Silence in Asian cultures can be a sign of respect. If a person asks a question, it is polite to consider your answer rather than simply blurting something out. Silence can also be a last resort, as in the case above, exacerbated when the parties are not face-to-face and nobody can read body language. Saying nothing is better than offending the other side, which would cause both parties to lose face.

Silence as a weapon

Keeping quiet may also be used as a weapon by canny negotiators, who know that certain cultures, North Americans in particular, are used to filling every gap in conversation with talk and will be unnerved by the other side falling quiet. There have been many cases of executives from a ‘talking’ culture, such as the USA and Canada, almost haggling down their own offer while their Asian counterparts sit in silence, considering their response but at the same time, watching a catastrophe for the ‘talkers’ unfold.

Respecting silence is a sign of respect

Silence could be a hierarchical issue in a cross-cultural meeting. In countries where the highest-ranking member of the team is the spokesperson and the others are there simply to provide context (again, Asian cultures, and some Latin and Arab countries), relatively senior executives could sit quietly as a sign of respect for their leader. Or silence could be a simple case of the person having to speak in another language, and taking their time to formulate a reply. The worst thing you can do is jump in with another question to fill the void.

Nordic cultures, like Asians, are ‘listening’ rather than ‘talking’, aiming for calm and order in a conversation. As such, silence implies thought, or thinking up an answer to a question with suitable gravitas. In Africa, silence is seen as a way of enjoying someone’s company; it implies that you are comfortable enough together not to need to fill every moment with noise.

When silence isn’t golden

Conversely, in countries like Italy and Spain, it is perfectly acceptable for everybody to talk at once or to interrupt a speaker. Silence in a meeting would be uncomfortable and awkward. Silence in response to a question would suggest not that you were thinking, but that you didn’t know the answer.

Rounding up

There is no right or wrong way to use silence. The key to successful communication, is to understand what it means to others.

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About the Author

Sue Bryant

Sue Bryant is an award-winning writer and editor specialising in global business culture and travel.