The use of silence across cultures

Have you ever felt odd or disoriented when in a conversation people were either all speaking at the same time and you wondered how they could possibly follow each other’s conversation, or, the other person was taking time to respond, and you worried that you missed something, that something was off and you had even the urge to fill the silence? Taking turns in conversations is not done in the same way across languages and cultures.

 

Turn-taking refers to how turns in a conversation or discourse are organized.

This usually means that participants of a conversation can speak one at a time in alternating turns. A little bit like when we meet on zoom or teams, where one needs to make sure that the other person actually finished speaking before starting to talk. That’s the most universal way to consider turn-taking.

In practice, it involves processes for constructing contributions, responding to previous comments, and transitioning to a different speaker, when we are talking in a group setting, and it also involves using a variety of linguistic and non-linguistic cues.

Turn Taking across cultures

Turn taking strategies can differ considerably across cultures and, implicitly also languages. When taking turns in conversations, we notice that two aspects play a fundamental role: the pace or time and the overlapping.

In some languages, turns tend to overlap and people seem to speak all at once: multiple conversations take place at the same time.

Those who are used to this kind of turn overlapping conversational style, can follow multiple conversations at once. It’s like multitasking: You are able to participate actively in one or more than one conversation around the table, whilst listening to others and maybe chipping in every now and then.

The pace of these conversations is usually on the faster side of what we can call continuum of  pace of conversations.

In other cultures and languages, conversations happen in a way that when one person speaks, the others listen, don’t comment and sometimes don’t show any sign of agreement or disagreement. In this kind of conversations the silent moments between one turn and the other, can have different lengths.

For those who are more comfortable with this kind of conversations, having time to think about the next turn, about what to respond is necessary and if not allowed can lead to feeling upset, disoriented, excluded from the conversation and not considered important to participate.

You can imagine the effect this can have on a business negotiation!

One thing to be aware of when observing different turn takings and silence in conversations is, that whilst in one kind of conversation the thinking about what to reply happens whilst the other person is talking, in other kinds of conversations the thinking happens mainly after the person finished speaking.

In this latter case it is a sign of respect to take some time before responding as it conveys the message that one was actively listening!

 

My personal use of silence and turns...

I personally am comfortable with slightly overlapping turns, and don’t find it disrespectful or a problem if someone cuts into my turn, but I know that this can be considered as rude. I’m also ok with shorter periods of silence between turns, but am really uncomfortable when this is longer and tend to feel the urge to fill the silence. I also get easily distracted when the pace of the conversation is much slower than what I expect.

I am a fast thinker in all of my languages, but I adjust the pace of my speech – and thoughts! – usually unconsciously (but sometimes very consciously!) to the pace of the other participants of the conversation. It is something we can learn and there are strategies to keep focussed during conversations that have a different pace than the one we feel more comfortable with.

I know that my patience and readiness to adjust to the other pace heavily depends on the topic and the situation: in formal settings I don't have problems to adjust my pace of thinking and participating in the conversation.

In informal settings though, this "filter" seems to disappear and I wish I could use my very own pace and way to express myself, no matter the language.

There is one very useful habit, called backchannel, which consists of giving feedback that we are following what the other person is saying through eye contact – if this is ok in the setting you are in, in some cultures eye contact should be avoided!

With saying things like like “wow”, “I see”, “yes”, “of course”, “exactly”, “uhum” etc., we show that we are following what the other person is saying, that we are listening attentively. Especially when we are rather the kind of person who would like to intervene in the turn of the other person, these interjections can help to "keep focused", and not forget what we may want to reply and add to the conversation.

 

What happens when we use different languages?

When I participate in multilingual conversations, i.e. when we speak English, German, Italian, French, Dutch in  multilingual setting, adjusting the pace and the use of silence in between turns to the different languages doesn't come naturally to everyone. Especially if the other participants are rather used to monolingual conversations, it requires some training.

I find that being able to use several communication styles in a conversation is actually one of the advantages of being multilingual: we can switch from one way to have conversations to the other.

Nevertheless, even in this kind of code switching situations, we can have a certain baseline, which is a predominant tendency that is like the starting point towards what we are ready and capable to adapt.

When my baseline is a kind of communication where the pace is slow, and the turn taking takes place with longer silent periods in between the turns, adapting to a fast pace and multiple conversations taking place at the same time requires more energy and time to adjust to.

Furthermore, I might not be able to adopt this kind of communication style at all, this is why my conversation partners need to know that, so that they can meet me half way for example.

Personally, when I speak English with my Italian or Greek friends, in English settings, I don’t slow down. I know that they are also used to speak and think at a rather fast pace. Our conversations can sometimes come across like disputes or sound like "heated conversations" to the ear of monolinguals or those who switch to a more English/British conversation style.

Do you adjust to the pace and use of silences in between turns or avoid them at all, depending on your conversation partners?

A client once said to me that when he speaks "it’s like driving a Ferrari". He said that he can't drive a Ferrari by using only the first gear – and he was right. He couldn't and shouldn't!
But changing into the third gear at least every now and then would be helpful, and his colleagues needed to get used to his higher speed in speech, and find ways to adjust to it too, at least to a certain extent.

 

How much should we adjust to other people's pace and communication style? Is there a style that is "better"?

There is no “better” style. Each communication style and turn taking style has its right and reason to be used and is effective in given situations and settings.

What I always suggest is that in international or cross cultural settings, we should agree on a conversation and negotiation style. This includes the pace, of course, and many other aspects of intercultural communication that I mention in my courses and trainings.

 

We should agree on a communication style that we are comfortable with: whether we are "fast talkers" and like overlapping turns, or we prefer finishing our sentences before anyone commenting or adding to the conversation.

This is an aspect many people neglect, but that plays a crucial part when we want to avoid misunderstandings and negotiation failures. We can always address this topic in a way that doesn’t intimidate or expose the other person, and find ways to compromise so that nobody feels excluded or jumps onto conclusions that lead to building walls instead of bridges.

 

How can we address this in multilingual and multicultural relationships?

With our partners and friends, we can address this aspect the same way as with colleagues. The way to communicate differs across languages and cultures in all social settings, therefore also in families.

In a multicultural family, chances are high that we use different ways to take turns, use silence as well as non-verbal communication etc. in various ways.
In our family we have several ways to take turns and this leads to attrition. Especially when we are tired, upset or in different moods. There are situations where I can’t slow down my train of thoughts as I would easily forget what I wanted to say. But if I see that the other person needs time to reflect and is thinking and speaking at another pace, we have to find a compromise that works for both.

It’s a cultural and individual thing, so we shouldn’t take it personal.

 

Adjusting to different paces of speech, turn takings and silence, is part of learning about intercultural communication in multiple languages.  And this is what participants of my workshops and trainings get to experience.

 

How is this for you?

  • What pace do you prefer in conversations?
  • What kind of turn taking do you feel most comfortable with?
  • Do you notice differences when talking about specific topics or when in different settings (more formal, less formal etc.)?
  • And what about the use of silence in between turns: do you feel comfortable pausing or do you feel the urge to fill the silence?

 

Please let me know in the comments!

 

 

Here is the video I published about this post and topic:

 

 

 

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