CULTURAL CONUNDRUMS / Sounds of silence — hunting the function in communication

By Kate Elwood / Special to The Japan NewsAny Westerner with some knowledge of Japan will have observed that, compared to most people in Western cultures, Japanese on the whole tend to be less garrulous. Learning to feel comfortable with longer and more frequent silences can be difficult for some who are unaccustomed to such a style of communication, but most generally manage to get the hang of it. Or else they end up dominating discussions and wonder repeatedly why their Japanese counterparts have so little to say.

This type of holding back from speech can be called a cooperative silence. The refrainer recognizes that a pause, long or short, is being taken, and he or she acquiesces in it. In my own case, once I came to understand that the silence was not a collapse in communication that needed to be speedily remedied, I found it fairly easy to adapt to the different communicative rhythm.

As a silence accommodator, that is. After decades in Japan, I recently realized more clearly, and more awkwardly, that there is a related communicative skill involving silence, which might be termed initiating silence. As a silence initiator, I was still far from advanced.

From 2014 to 2016, I served as an associate dean in my university, the second nonnative speaker of Japanese to do so in my particular school. This was linguistically challenging in various ways — coping with the large volume of documents I needed to read in Japanese, understanding the nuances of my colleagues’ comments regarding various initiatives, reporting results and explaining proposals at large meetings, and being one of the main people in charge of leading some smaller meetings and managing the discussions of some issues.

Linguistic ability aside, one component in these last two activities that I found unexpectedly difficult to master was the proper use of silence.

I was the person in charge of much of the speaking yet I had not mastered the corresponding art of proactively not speaking. I paused, of course, between various sections of explanations and when moving from one PowerPoint slide to the next and so on, but I ended up feeling that I had hurried those around me through the explanations and discussions willy-nilly.

I observed the much longer pauses that were put into play by my colleagues and gradually learned to wait, wait, wait, and then wait some more before moving on. I wasn’t accommodating someone else’s silence but rather instigating silence in a role as the chief speaker. As the person responsible for the silence, it was hard sometimes not to worry that I was causing impatience even though I knew I was conforming to communicative norms.

Linguist Haru Yamada has made a study of various uses of silence in business discourse. What interested me most was her examination of silence in topic shifting. Yamada analyzed six weekly meetings of bank managers. In two meetings, three Americans spoke to each other, in another two, three Japanese people spoke to each other, and in the last two, one American spoke with one Japanese person.

The Americans all verbally ended their contributions to the meetings by saying things like, “That’s all I’ve got,” or “That’s it.” On the other hand, all of the Japanese relied on silence to mark the end of their input. The average length of topic-shift silence for the Japanese managers was 6.5 seconds, but the Americans’ silence in corresponding situations was an average of 1.7 seconds. The longest silence the Americans engaged in when shifting topics was 4.6 seconds while that of the Japanese was 8.2 seconds.

Yamada notes that the silence progressively moves the topic from the exclusive domain of the speaker to group ownership of all the listeners. But when Yamada has simulated the experience in localization briefing sessions, American clients sometimes find the lengthy silences “unbearable.” Nonetheless, she cautions that if non-Japanese unfamiliar with the convention attempt to fill the silence, the topic shift may fail, resulting in a potentially endless discussion.

Japanese participants are unperturbed by silence at certain points in communication because it is expected. However, like their Western counterparts, they are likely to feel tense and apprehensive when silence is instigated seemingly out of the blue. Applied linguist Jim King and social psychologist Atsuko Aono conducted an interesting experiment to ascertain how Japanese and British students behaved and felt during a puzzling silence on the part of their professor in a one-on-one tutorial.

Students of both groups had been told that the tutorial would be used for some kind of data collection, but beyond that they knew nothing of the nature of the research. After the professor had greeted the students with a short exchange of small talk and the student was seated, the professor ceased to speak and maintained a neutral facial expression. On average, the British students remained silent for 28 seconds while the Japanese students endured the silence for an average of seven seconds longer.

Yet when later asked to rate their feeling of discomfort during the silence on a scale of one to six, the British participants’ average was 4.29 and the Japanese students was slightly higher at 4.85. Both groups spoke about not understanding the meaning of the silence and feeling apprehension as a result, a state the researchers term “situational silence anxiety.”

King and Aono’s research included one more interesting result. One student had in fact been excluded from the calculation of the averages because her tolerance for silence was much higher than any of the other participants. The student — part of the British group, not the Japanese — maintained silence for a whopping 11 minutes and 14 seconds. Moreover, she stated that after feeling some initial trepidation at the abrupt silence, she soon relaxed and found herself “intrigued” by the situation. This extreme silence outlier is a good reminder that there is always a diverse range of people in any culture.

(The next installment will appear

Feb. 10.)

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.Speech

Click to play


+ -

Generating speech. Please wait...

Become a Premium Member to use this service.

Become a Premium Member to use this service.

Offline error: please try again.