One of the things that I have enjoyed in learning about other cultures is the use of silence. I’m not talking here about personal silence. I think it is important to be alone, silent, reflective, and prayerful every day. But, I’m speaking here about silence between two or more people. I don’t know if there is a term for it, so I’ll call it “interactional silence.”
A little background. Since many of the readers here are American, I’ll share something that is true in American culture that few of us realize: Americans have a strong aversion to interactional silence. That’s why we have so many “safe topics” to discuss when we are with people. Things like sports, weather, movies, etc. These topics are safe because we don’t have to disclose personal information but allow us to fill the air with chatter. (Exception: It’s embarrassing for me to admit to being a Cub fan.)
Watch two or more Americans walking, sitting, eating, or riding in a car together. Notice what I am talking about. Generally, things get uncomfortable after just a few seconds without any verbiage.
That’s why riding on elevators often feels awkward. Americans are together, but social norms demand looking forward without speaking. Being with other people yet mute = uncomfortable.
Many, probably most, other cultures are not this way–especially collectivist cultures.
I remember in China when I had a meeting with my friend Mr. Li at his office at the university. We were friends, so we drank tea while having our meeting. When the topic of discussion was over, we sat drinking tea in silence. My Chinese friend was quite comfortable sitting in peace enjoying his tea with a friend. On the other hand, I was dying to jump in with a comment on the weather or some other meaningless topic to break the stillness. Fortunately, I knew enough not to do so and enjoyed sitting silently with my friend.
A Japanese businessman visiting America described watching an American conversation like watching a ping pong game: your head goes back and forth with no interruption.
I often see Arabs sitting silently together and enjoying each other’s company without speaking.
Try this fun experiment. If you are an American try to sit with a friend for a few minutes without uttering a word. If you’re not an American but are with one, try just being silent and see what your friend does.
A couple of takeaways.
- Notice your use of silence, or lack thereof
Just being aware is a huge part of the road to becoming more intercultural.
- Change to be like your friend in the other culture
Talk more if you are not American, and talk less if you are. The best and most important part of learning a new culture is changing your behavior to imitate the Other.
I have more to say, but I’ll be silent for now.