Some say silence is golden. For others, it can be awkward or even aggressive. Kate Sullivan, the British Council’s expert on intercultural fluency, gives advice on saying nothing.
There is no ‘normal’ amount of silence
People are comfortable with different ranges of silence – from one or two seconds up to a couple of minutes or more. In some contexts, people will be comfortable finishing each others’ sentences, talking over each other and interrupting, so there is never silence.
Silence can have lots of meanings
Silence can mean different things to different people and in different situations – some positive, some negative and many neutral. It could be a sign of:
- feeling very comfortable with the speaker
- respect for the person who is speaking – especially if they are in a senior position or are more experienced
- reflecting on what the speaker has said before answering
- agreement with what is being said
- wanting to avoid embarrassing the speaker by openly asking questions or disagreeing in public
- being unsure of how to respond
- lack of understanding due to language barriers
- discomfort in the situation
- deliberately making the other person feel uncomfortable.
Personality and culture matter in interactions
People may be comfortable with different amounts of silence due to their personality. Other people’s attitudes towards silence may be influenced by their cultural identity. This can include community influences, to family values and social practices.
Silence can vary in the workplace
'Power distance' often has an impact on people’s comfort with silence in the workplace.
Very hierarchical organisations can have a large power distance, with those lower in the hierarchy accepting uneven power distribution. In these organisations, silence can be an important sign of respect for senior colleagues – showing serious consideration for what they say and indicating agreement with decisions.
In organisations with flatter hierarchies and less power distance, people are likely to give opinions freely, even challenging superiors. Employees may interrupt each other, talk more and be uncomfortable with large amounts of silence. Silence in these situations can be difficult to interpret. It could mean someone is unsure of how to respond, doesn’t understand due to language barriers, or is even using a deliberate ploy to make others feel uncomfortable.
Know your context
In less formal environments, communication is less direct. Building relationships and preserving harmony in the workplace is the aim. In these situations, people may be more comfortable with silence, inferring meaning from non-verbal communication and intuition rather than words.
Saving face is an important part of preserving harmony – maintaining someone’s dignity or prestige by avoiding embarrassment. People may remain silent rather than question or openly disagree with another in order to save face.
In contrast, in task centred environments with more rules, people tend to communicate more directly, with the aim of giving and receiving information. Because they convey meaning through words, people are likely to talk more and be less comfortable with long periods of silence. It can be difficult to interpret silence in these situations.
Learn to encourage silence
To encourage more silence and pauses:
- Circulate a meeting agenda by email and ask people to reply to you with their ideas before the meeting. You can summarise those ideas at the start of the meeting and ask participants to reflect on them for a few minutes before starting the conversation.
- At the start of a meeting, if appropriate, ask each member their main motivation for attending. Pause before inviting the next speaker to talk. By encouraging members to listen and pause from the start, you can set a slower pace for the rest of the meeting.
- Speak more slowly to change the pace of the interaction. Other people will often slow down with you and there will be more pauses and silence.
- Ask someone to summarise or repeat what they just said to give yourself more time to comprehend.
- If appropriate, interrupt others, ask if you can ask three questions, pause, then ask the first question. Mentioning three questions gives you a chance to interrupt or redirect again if necessary. By pausing the flow, you can create more space in the conversation.
- If appropriate, tell people you need a little more time. 'Would you mind waiting a second while I make some notes?'
- Take a break or pause the conversation, offer the other speaker a drink or snack and remain silent while getting it or while it arrives. This can re-set the pace and introduce more pauses when the conversation starts again.
- When a decision has been made, ask for a couple of minutes of silence for everyone to think through it before confirming it.
- Use typed meetings if possible. Log into a webinar platform and use the chat function to communicate by typing. As this is slower than speaking, there will be more pauses in the conversation.
Learn to encourage discussion
To encourage less silence:
- Circulate an agenda for a meeting in advance. Include the topics for discussion and ask people to think about them before the conversation. Encourage members to make notes and bring them to the meeting to share verbally.
- At the start of a conversation, allow people time to make small talk and become more comfortable with each other.
- Don’t force people into making a decision or giving their opinions in a first meeting. They may need time to build trust before speaking more openly.
- Don’t challenge someone who is silent. Avoid asking them 'what’s wrong?' as this may lead to a loss of face and more silence.
- Ask closed (do you like A?) or multiple (do you prefer A or B?) questions to encourage someone to give their opinion.
- Speak to people individually rather than in a group, and without their managers around. They may be more comfortable sharing their thoughts with you alone.
- Ask people to spend a few minutes thinking about a topic before discussing it. By encouraging silence, people may be more likely to talk when a solution or decision is important.
- Some people may need an interpreter if their language proficiency is low. Adapt your vocabulary and use simple sentences to help everyone understand.
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