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We can communicate by manipulating words and gestures. But we can also communicate with silence; by manipulating such paralinguistic factors as volume, rate, and pitch.


Don Fabun noted that "the world of silence may be a cold and bitter one; like the deep wastes of the Arctic regions, it is fit for neither man nor beast. Holding one's tongue may be prudent, but it is an act of rejection; silence builds walls-and walls are the symbols of failure."

Thomas Mann, in one of the most often quoted observations on silence, said, "Speech is civilization itself. The word, even the most contradictory word, preserves contact; it is silence which isolates."

On the other hand, philosopher Karl Jaspers observed that "the ultimate in thinking as in communication is silence," and Max Picard noted that "silence is nothing merely negative; it is not the mere absence of speech. It is a positive, a complete world in itself?'

All of these are rather extreme statements on the nature and function of silence. Actually, all are correct--for some occasions and for some people. The one thing on which all observations are clearly in agreement, and that needs to be stressed here, is that silence communicates. As we have seen, one of the universal of nonverbal behaviors is that they always communicate, and this is no less true of silence. Our silence communicates just as intensely as anything we might verbalize. Perhaps the best way to approach silence is to consider some of the functions it might serve or the meanings it may communicate.

Silence allows the speaker time to think. In some cases, silence allows the speaker the opportunity to integrate previous communications in order to make the necessary connections before the verbal communications may logically continue. In other instances it gives the speaker or listener time for previous messages to sink in. This is seen most clearly after someone makes what she or he thinks is a profound statement, almost as if to proclaim that this message should not be contaminated by other, less significant and less insightful messages.

At still other times silence allows the individual to think of future messages. In many instances people remain silent to prepare themselves for the intense communications that are to follow, rather like the calm before the storm. Before messages of intense conflict, as well as before messages confessing undying love, there is often silence. Again, silence seems to prepare the receiver for the importance of these future messages.

Some people use silence as a weapon to hurt others. We often speak of giving someone "the silent treatment." After a conflict, for example, one or both individuals might remain silent as a kind of punishment. Children often imitate their parents in this and refuse to talk to playmates when they are angry with them. Silence to hurt others may also take the form of refusing to acknowledge the presence of another person as in discontinuation; here silence is a dramatic demonstration of the total indifference one person feels toward the other. It is a refusal to recognize the person as a person, a refusal to treat the person any differently than one would treat an inanimate object.

Sometimes silence is used as a response to personal anxiety, shyness, or threats. One might feel anxious or shy among new people and prefer to remain silent. By remaining silent the individual precludes the chance of rejection. Only when the silence is broken and an attempt to communicate with another person is made does one risk rejection. At other times silence may be a kind of escape response made to threats by another individual or group of individuals. A street gang that makes remarks as one passes is one example. By remaining silent, by refusing to engage in verbal contact, we attempt to remove ourselves psychologically from the situation.

Silence may be used to prevent the verbal communication of certain messages. In conflict situations silence is sometimes used to prevent certain topics from surfacing and to prevent one or both parties from saying things they may later regret. The point was made earlier that verbal expressions can never be reversed; once said, something cannot be unsaid. In conflict situations silence often allows us time to cool off before uttering expressions of hatred, severe criticism, or personal attacks, and here it serves us to good advantage.

Silence may be used to prevent one from saying the wrong thing or from making a fool of oneself. "Keep quiet and people will think you a philosopher," a Latin proverb advises. The alternative, to have in mind when they remain silent: "Talk and people will think you a fool."

Like the eyes, face, or hands, silence can be used to communicate emotional responses. Sometimes silence communicates a determination to be uncooperative or defiant; by refusing to engage in verbal communication, we defy the authority or the legitimacy of the other person's position. In most pleasant situations silence might be used to express affection or love, especially when coupled with long and longing stares into each other's eyes. In many religious ceremonies, for example, reverence is signaled by silence. Often the congregation remains silent throughout a religious ritual or verbalizes only formal responses. Silence is often used to communicate annoyance, usually coupled with a pouting expression, arms crossed in front of the chest, and nostrils flared.

Of course, silence is often used when there is simply nothing to say, when nothing occurs to one to say, or when one does not want to say anything. James Russell Lowell expressed this best, I think: "Blessed are they who have nothing to say, and who cannot be persuaded to say it."

The communicative functions of silence in the situations just cited are not universal. The Apache, for example, regard silence very differently. Among the Apache, mutual friends do not feel the need to introduce strangers who may be working in the same area or on the same project. The strangers may remain silent for several days. During this time they are looking each other over, attempting to determine if the other person is all right. Only after this period would the individuals talk. When courting, especially during the initial stages, Apache individuals remain silent for hours; if they do talk, they generally talk very little. Only after a couple has been dating for several months will they have lengthy conversations. These periods of silence are generally attributed to shyness or self-consciousness. The use of silence is explicitly taught to Apache women, who are especially discouraged from engaging in long discussions with their dates. Silence during courtship is to many Apache a sign of modesty. If a young woman speaks a great deal, she is thought to be betraying prior experience with men, and in some instances it is seen as a sign of the woman's willingness to engage in sexual relations.


An old exercise to increase a student's ability to express different emotions, feelings, and attitudes was to have the student say the following sentences while accenting or stressing different words: "Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?" Significant differences in meaning are easily communicated depending on where the stress is placed. Consider, for example, the following variations:

1. Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?

2. Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?

3. Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?

4. Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?

5. Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?

Each of these five sentences communicates something different. Each, in fact, asks a totally different question, even though the words are identical. All that distinguishes the sentences is stress, one of the aspects of what is called paralanguage. Paralanguage may be defined as the vocal (but nonverbal) dimension of speech. Paralanguage refers to the manner in which something is said rather than to what is said, to such vocal qualities as rate of speech, volume, rhythm, resonance; vocalizations such as laughing, yelling, moaning, whining, and belching; vocal segregates such as "uh-uh" and "shh"; and pitch, the highness or lowness of vocal tone.

On the basis of these vocal qualities, what we call "paralinguistic cues," we form opinions about people (about their emotional states as well as about their status, sex, and various other characteristics), about potential conversational exchanges (when to talk and when to keep silent, for example), and about whether to believe or not to believe the speaker.

We are a diagnostically oriented people, quick to make judgments about another's personality based on various paralinguistic cues. At times our judgments turn out to be correct, at other times incorrect. We may, for example, conclude that speakers who speak so softly that we can hardly hear them have some kind of problem. Perhaps they feel inferior--they "know" that no one really wants to listen, that nothing they say is significant, so they speak softly. Other speakers speak at an extremely loud volume, perhaps because of an overinflated ego and the belief that everyone in the world wants to hear them, that no one can risk not hearing every word. Speakers who speak with no variation, in a complete monotone, seem uninterested in what they are saying and seem to encourage a similar lack of interest from their listeners--if any are still around. We might perceive such people as having a lack of interest in life in general, as being bland individuals. All of these conclusions are, at best, based on little evidence. Yet this does not stop us from forming such conclusions.

It is important for us to inquire into the relationship between paralanguage and impression formation. It does seem that certain voices are symptomatic of certain personality types, of certain problems, and specifically that the personality orientation gives rise to the vocal qualities. When listening to people speak--regardless of what they are saying--we form impressions based on their paralanguage as to what kind of people they are. Our impressions seem to consist of physical impressions (perhaps about body type and certainly about sex and age), personality impressions (they seem outgoing, they sound shy, they appear aggressive), and evaluative impressions (they sound like good people; they sound evil and menacing, they sound lovable, they have vicious laughs).

Much research has been directed to the question of the accuracy of these judgments--that is, how accurately we may judge a person on the basis of voice alone. One of the earliest studies on this question was conducted by T.H. Pear, who had over 4,000 listeners make guesses about nine speakers. The sex and age of the speaker were guessed with considerable accuracy. However, the listeners were able to guess the occupations of only the clergyman and the actor. Contemporary research generally supports these early findings.

One of the most interesting findings on voice and personal characteristics is that listeners can accurately judge the status (high, middle, or low) of speakers after hearing a 60-second voice sample. In fact, many listeners reported that they made their judgments in less than 15 seconds. It has also been found that the speakers judged to be of high status were rated as being of higher credibility than those rated of middle or low status.

One important finding reported in a number of studies is that on the basis of paralinguistic information, listeners agree about the personality of the speaker even when their judgments are in error. Listeners seem to have stereotyped ideas about how vocal characteristics and personality characteristics are related and use these stereotypes in their judgments. Sometimes the stereotypes are of the groups to which the listeners themselves belong. For example, in a study of Scottish and English speakers, Scottish listeners judged the Scottish voices as belonging to persons of greater generosity, friendliness, good-heartedness, and likability. English listeners, on the other hand, judged the English voices as belonging to persons who were more intelligent, ambitious, self-confident, and apt to serve as leaders.


(*) Joseph A. DeVito is Professor of Communications at Hunter College of the City University of New York. An associate editor of Et cetera, his many scholarly publications include papers and books on general semantics, psycholinguistics and speech communication.

(**) Reprinted with permission from The Interpersonal Communication Book by Joseph A. DeVito, Fifth Edition, Harper and Row, 1989.
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Author:Devito, Joseph A.
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Article Type:Reprint
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2017

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