Here’s a little experiment for you to try out:
1) Get into an elevator with a stranger of the same gender.
2) Look the person in the eye. Don’t smile.
Don’t say a word.
3) If the other person starts talking to you, don’t
As they say, results may vary. They actually depend a lot on where
you’re conducting the experiment. For instance, step 3 is unlikely to happen in Finland; there, you’ll probably ride
the elevator in complete silence, whether you made eye contact or not. In France, the other person may not necessarily talk to you,
even when you made eye contact. Otherwise, the person may turn away and look annoyed when you fail to respond. In the
United States, with the possible exception of New York City, I’d say the experiment was pretty successful if you made it out of
the elevator alive.
Just kidding. I sincerely hope you will get out completely
unharmed. However, the person you shared the elevator with may now think that you’re a complete jerk. That's because
you remained silent in a situation where it is not ok to remain silent. American culture has little tolerance for silence in what
I call “silence-averse” situations. Especially in the south of the country, the rule seems to be that whenever you
get within ten or so feet of another person, you’re supposed to talk to him or her. If you made eye contact, it’s
mandatory. Otherwise, your counterpart will conclude that you are either ill-meaning or very ill-mannered. In situations
where humans expect to communicate with each other, the absence of such communication inevitably conveys a negative message in the
Members of other cultures may consider fewer situations
“silence-averse.” In addition, they may interpret silence differently. Across cultural groups, it can actually
have many meanings:
• Silence may indicate disinterest
or rejection. This is common in most Western cultures. Remaining silent in “silence-averse” situations is
the non-verbal equivalent of say- ing “I don’t like this,” albeit less confrontationally. How likely people are to
assume that another person’s silence conveys this particular message depends to no small degree on their cultural background.
In general, Americans tend to be quicker in jumping to this conclusion than others.
• Silence may indicate anger and
hostile feelings. This is a kind of escalation from the previous point. Arabs and some Asians may be smiling while
using silence to convey this message. Used to not showing feelings openly, they leave it to their counterparts to figure out that
there is a major issue.
• Silence may indicate
embarrassment. In strongly group-oriented cultures “unpleasant” comments and situations often lead to moments of
silence. When Westerners may feel compelled to speak up, others might choose to remain silent in order to avoid making the person
• Silence may indicate
agreement. An unspoken rule in some cultures is that “you need to speak up if you disagree with what is being
said.” Accordingly, a person making a proposal may assume that those listening agree with it if they remain silent.
• Silence may not indicate
anything unusual. Most cultures know many different situations in interpersonal communication where silence is an opportunity
for reflection and preparation.
These interpretations tells us that silence can actually carry different
messages: it may mean that things are good, that things are pretty bad, that things are really bad, or it may actually not mean
anything. The challenge: how to deal with this when communicating with people from other countries and cultures? Most of us
have witnessed situations where erroneous assumptions lured presenters into thinking that their audience agreed with them, misled
negotiators into making costly mistakes, or even caused previously strong relationships to become tense and shaky.
The way to avoid all of these misunderstandings is this: instead of
jumping to conclusions, verify your assumptions. If your counterparts remain silent in a situation where you would not expect them
to, assess what may be going on by carefully asking open questions. If this sounds simple, that’s because it is. More
often than not, you may actually find that there is no issue when you thought there was one and vice versa. And who knows, maybe
you’ll even discover that others are not the jerks you thought they were!