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Silence in Communication Chapters Summary

Silence in Communication Chapters Summary


Page 136 to 145. Only summary from the pages…:


“Speech,” wrote Thomas Mann, “is civilization itself. The word, even the most contradictory word, preserves contact; it’s silence which isolates.” But philosopher Max Picard noted that “silence is nothing merely negative; it’s not the mere absence of speech. It’s a positive, a complete world in itself.” The one thing on which these two contradictory observations agree is that silence communicates. Your silence communicates just as intensely as anything you verbalize (Jaworski, 1993; Richmond, McCroskey, & Hickson, 2012).


Interpersonal Silence

Remaining silent is at times your right. For example, you have the right to remain silent to avoid incriminating yourself. You have a right to protect your privacy—to withhold information that has no bearing on the matter at hand. For example, your previous relationship history, affectional orientation, or religion is usually irrelevant to your ability to function in a job and thus may be kept private in most job-related situations. On the other hand, these issues may be relevant when, for example, you’re about to enter a more intimate phase of a relationship; then there may be an obligation to reveal information about yourself that ethically could have been kept hidden at earlier relationship stages.

You do not have the right to remain silent and to refuse to reveal information about crimes you’ve seen others commit. However, psychiatrists, clergy members, and lawyers—fortunately or unfortunately—are often exempt from the requirement to reveal information about criminal activities when the information had been gained through privileged communication with clients.

Ethical Choice Point

Pat is HIV positive and engages only in safe sex. Does Pat have an obligation to reveal the HIV status to any potential sexual partner? Does this obligation change if Pat is in a long-term relationship? At what point in a relationship does Pat incur an obligation to reveal this HIV status (if at all)?

The Functions of Silence

Like words and gestures, silence serves several important communication functions:

To provide time to think?Silence allows you time to think, time to formulate and organize your verbal communications.

To hurt?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 may remain silent as a kind of punishment.

To respond to personal anxiety?Sometimes silence is used as a response to personal anxiety, shyness, or threats. You may feel anxious or shy among new people and prefer to remain silent.

To prevent communication?Silence may be used to prevent communication of certain messages. In conflict situations, silence is sometimes used to prevent certain topics from surfacing or to prevent one or both parties from saying things they may later regret.

To communicate emotions?Like the eyes, face, or hands, silence can also be used to communicate emotions (Ehrenhaus, 1988; Lane, Koetting, & Bishop, 2002). Sometimes silence communicates a determination to be uncooperative or defiant; by refusing to engage in verbal communication, you defy the authority or the legitimacy of the other person’s position.

To achieve specific effects?Silence may also be used strategically, to achieve specific effects. The pause before making what you feel is an important comment or after hearing about some mishap may be strategically positioned to communicate a desired impression—to make your idea stand out among others or perhaps to give others the impression that you care a lot more than you really do. Generally, research finds that people use silence strategically more with strangers than they do with close friends (Hasegawa & Gudykunst, 1998).

VIEWPOINTS Nonverbal Communication and Ethics

In addition to silence, other dimensions of nonverbal communication appear to be related to ethics. For example, there is some evidence to show that people are more ethical in the morning than in the afternoon or evening. People are less apt to lie or cheat early in the day than they are later in the day (Kouchakil & Smith, 2013). And people are more apt to lie or cheat when they are sitting in chairs that allow for expansion and are more moral when seated in chairs that are more restrictive (Yap et al., 2013). What other dimensions of nonverbal communication might have ethical implications?

The Spiral of Silence

The spiral of silence theory offers a somewhat different perspective on silence. When this theory (originally developed to explain the media’s influence on opinion) is applied to the interpersonal context, it argues that you’re more likely to voice agreement than disagreement (Noelle-Neumann, 1973, 1980, 1991; Scheufele & Moy, 2000; Severin & Tankard, 2001). The theory claims that when a controversial issue arises, you estimate the opinions of others and figure out which views are popular and which are not. In face-to-face conversations—say, with a group of five or six people—you’d have to guess about their opinions or wait until they’re voiced. In social media communication, on the other hand, you’re often provided statistics on opinions that eliminate the guesswork. You also estimate the rewards and the punishments you’d likely get from expressing popular or unpopular positions. You then use these estimates to determine which opinions you’ll express and which you won’t. Some research on the spiral of silence theory, applied to online communication, indicates that people support issues held by the minority in the offline world but not issues held by the minority in the online community (Yun & Park, 2011).

Generally, you’re more likely to voice your opinions when you agree with the majority than when you disagree. And there’s evidence to show that this effect is stronger for minority group members (Bowen & Blackmon, 2003). You may do this to avoid being isolated from the majority or for fear of being proved wrong or being disliked, for example. Or you may simply assume that the majority, because they’re a majority, must be right.

As people with minority views remain silent, the majority position gets stronger (because those who agree with it are the only ones speaking); as the majority position becomes stronger and the minority position becomes weaker, the situation becomes an ever-widening spiral. The Internet (blogs and social network sites, especially) may in some ways act as a counteragent to the spiral of silence because Internet discussions provide so many free ways for you to express minority opinions (anonymously if you wish) and to find like-minded others quickly (McDevitt, Kiousis, & Wahl-Jorgensen, 2003).

Culture and Silence

Not all cultures view silence as functioning in the same way (Vainiomaki, 2004). In the United States, for example, people often interpret silence negatively. At a business meeting or even in an informal social group, others may wonder if the silent member is not listening, has nothing interesting to add, doesn’t understand the issues, is insensitive, or is too self-absorbed to focus on the messages of others.

Other cultures, however, view silence more positively. In many situations in Japan, for example, silence is a response that is considered more appropriate than speech (Haga, 1988). And in the United States, the traditional Apache regard silence very differently than do European Americans (Basso, 1972). 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. This period enables people to observe one another and to come to a judgment about the other individuals. Once this assessment is made, the individuals talk. When courting, especially during the initial stages, Apache couples 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.

Spatial Messages and Territoriality

Space is an especially important factor in interpersonal communication, although we seldom think about it. Edward T. Hall (1959, 1963, 1966), who pioneered the study of spatial communication, called this area proxemics. We can examine this broad area by looking at proxemic distances, the theories about space, and territoriality.

Proxemic Distances

Four proxemic distances, the distances we maintain between each other in our interactions, correspond closely to the major types of relationships. They are intimate, personal, social, and public distances, as depicted in Table 5.5. Note that these four distances can be further divided into close and far phases and that the far phase of one level (say, personal) blends into the close phase of the next level (social). Do your relationships also blend into one another? Or are your personal relationships totally separate from your social relationships?

Table 5.5 In a Nutshell Relationships and Proxemic Distances



Intimate relationship

Intimate distance

0 18 inches

close phase far phase

Personal relationship

Personal distance




4 feet

close phase far phase

Social relationship

Social distance

4 12 feet

close phase far phase

Public relationship

Public distance

12 25+ feet

close phase far phase

Intimate Distance

In intimate distance, ranging from actual touching to 18 inches, the presence of the other individual is unmistakable. Each person experiences the sound, smell, and feel of the other’s breath. You use intimate distance for lovemaking, comforting, and protecting. This distance is so short that most people do not consider it proper in public. 

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