One of the more striking differences among the cultures of the world is the treatment of silence. Often this is simplified into an East-West dichotomy, but given the multitude of cultures that exist within those broad and crude geographic boundaries, doing so would be an over-simplification of the issue. Instead, it would be wise to focus on a small number of countries that seemingly stand at extreme ends with regards to their treatment of silence: the US on one side of the divide, with Japan and China on the other.
In general, Japanese society has been described as one in which being modest and quiet is considered to be positive.1) Silence has been associated with truthfulness in Japan, a belief originating from Zen Buddhism that encouraged silence as a pathway to enlightenment and stressed the inability to reach enlightenment by talking about it.2)
A variety of Japanese idioms also suggest that silence or quietness is a virtue. Japanese people appear to value ambiguity in social and public relationships and often encourage people to restrain verbal expression. For the Japanese, “sasshi” (a listener's ability to guess what a person is inferring) is considered an important skill that may include correctly translating nonverbal behaviors like body language, eye rolls, sighs, or groans.3) The culture seems to hold words in lower esteem than do members of other cultures and the emphasis is on listening rather than speaking, on intuition rather than explanation, and on synthesis over analysis.4)
Not-speaking is the flower (Silence is golden) - Japanese proverb
Chinese culture is influenced by the thoughts of Confucianism and Taoism, in which the power of language is limited, while silence (or few words) is exalted.5) In Lao Tzu’s opinion, human language is limited and is inherently flawed in its ability to reveal and explain the laws and rules of the universe.
“One who knows does not speak; one who speaks does not know.” (Lao Tzu)
Similarly, Confucius advised his pupils to *do* more rather than *speak* more, and mistrusted mere words. He specifically comments on the limits of language with the following passage: “Does Tian speak? The seasons come and go, all things live and grow, does Tian speak? And yet the four seasons turn and the myriad things are born and grow within it. Does Tian speak?”. In his opinion, the laws of nature lie far beyond language.
“Silence is a true friend who never betrays.” (Confucius)
These two stand in stark contrast to the US (and countries influenced by it), where not being quiet and asserting one's needs and desires is expected and valued. In the latter culture, silence or quietness is often viewed negatively, especially in social relationships and public settings, where it is frequently described as “awkward”.
In the anti-silence culture, one shows oneself verbally to others rather than through non-verbal means, despite the fact that a significant amount of communication is non-verbal.6) The individual in this culture is taught and expected from an early age to verbally express his/her needs and desires.
In the pro-silence culture, greater value is placed on listening, and silence itself is viewed as a form of communication. Japanese children learn how to speak appropriately within the context of a situation and quietness is an appropriate or desired social practice on many occasions. 7)
What is interpreted as non-communication in the US then is correctly seen as communication in Japanese and Chinese society. In the US, what is spoken is placed in the foreground and what is not said remains in the background. What this means, in essence, is that the study of body language (the use of the hands, body posture, gesture, facial expressions, and the uses of silence are all treated as an unarticulated whole. By way of contrast, the use of body language, face, posture, and silence are all seen as aspects of human communication in Japanese and Chinese culture.8)
Given this vast cultural gulf in the interpretation, value and use of silence, it comes as no suprise to find that there are frequent mis-understandings between these verbal and non-verbal cultures. Silence is used by East Asian collectivist societies as an indication of strength, power, and disagreement, whereas individualist societies see it as an indication of weakness, shyness, or trouble.9) The silence-valuing culture sees the more vocal individual as disruptive, rude and foolish, whereas the silence-devaluing culture sees the quiet individual as reticent, shy and lacking thought. Ultimately, the success of cross-cultural communication depends on mutual reciprocity in understanding between communicators. While silence and verbosity can also vary on a highly individualised and contextualised basis, being aware of our own biases and that of others, can go a long way towards allowing us to overcome these barriers to communication.