Many people probably recognize the second part of that proverb as an oft-quoted adage to dictate the importance of quiet in our busy, noisy lives. The full version, as written above, originates in English thanks to Thomas Carlyle, who translated it from part of a larger German work in 1831 (which can be found on phrases.org/uk). The translated passage begins, "Silence is the element in which great things fashion themselves together," according to the same website.
If we stopped to think about this, in a moment of peace and quiet, we might recognize the truth in this idea. Silence gives us the chance to pull together information or speech to which we have just been exposed but which perhaps we need more time to process. To think about what you want to say before speaking is common advice, especially to avoid realizing a different idiom, that of "I spoke too soon."
Are English speakers more uncomfortable with silence?
And yet, recent research has shown that English speakers in particular are more likely to be uncomfortable with silences, even brief ones, than speakers of other languages. This despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that English contains more words than most of the world's other languages. A July 18th BBC Capital article entitled "The subtle power of uncomfortable silences" cites a variety of studies to show that culture plays a large role in determining how we use and respond to silence, be it in the workplace, business negotiations, or in casual conversation.
The Benefits of a Pause
For example, the article describes how one study showed that people in Anglophone cultures became uncomfortable with silence when it lasted for more than 4 seconds. In contrast, another study demonstrated that Japanese people were content to allow silences of over 8 seconds, more than double that of Americans in an equivalent business meeting setting. The BBC article also references Finnish culture as placing a high value on the act and art of listening, more than English-speakers generally do. (Although it is somewhat less true today than in the past, the Finns are known for being a comparatively quiet people who take spoken language seriously and do not overuse it; there is less verbal commotion on public transportation and more emphasis on listening than speaking compared to, for example, American culture.)
Researchers and communications experts have hypothesized a reason for the greater difficulty in American society in tolerating long-lasting pauses: dating back to colonial times, America became a place where many cultures and people intersected and influenced the growth of the nation. The resulting diverse culture leaves potentially less room for silence than in a more homogeneous culture, according to a communications professor quoted in the BBC article, because the most immediate impulse for understanding different people is to try to communicate with words. As this article's examples display, however, we would do well to learn from the power of even a few tactical seconds of pause in order to establish our own confidence, understanding, and command of whatever speech surrounds the silence.
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