During my four years in retail, I learned the power of silence.
I spent many hours in the store by myself. Devoid of staff or customers to talk with, silence became second nature. As a result, I’m more than happy to let my brain float around and go down whatever avenues it desires.
However, I realized that often wasn’t the case with customers.
It was strange; if I didn’t speak for a few seconds, some people would happily stand and wait. Others would reach for their phone, but a surprising number of people overshared information about themselves. I didn’t understand.
The experience taught me a lot, namely:
Silence Makes People Uncomfortable
Stephen C. Levinson, a social scientist, concluded that we take a fraction of a second between sentences in most instances. While that is pretty universal, the way certain cultures perceive silence varies.
For example, research conducted at the University of Groningen found that Dutch and English speakers feel uncomfortable after a mere four seconds of silence.
It seems, then, if you know how to use it, silence can be a powerful ally.
The Power of a Pause
In an interview with US chat show host Stephen Colbert, Reeves is put on the spot and asked:
“What do you think happens after we die, Keanu Reeves?”
He takes a long pause, and with an unnerving level of calm, says:
“I know that the ones who love us will miss us.”
It’s an unusually profound answer for a chat show, which is often tailored toward unfunny jokes and scripted comedy sketches. Reeves didn’t feel rushed, despite the cameras and audience. Instead, he took time to answer such a serious question which enabled him to give a powerful, apt answer.
When asked about the interview during promotion for John Wick 3, Reeves said it was simply a “spur of the moment thing.” Boom. That is how much power silence can hold.
In the “spur of the moment,” Reeves deliberately took time many of us would feel uncomfortable with and gave an answer that felt anything but “spur of the moment.”
The power of the pause stretches beyond Hollywood, however.
The Best Communication is When You Don’t Speak at All
In Japan, there is a concept named haragei, which suggests the best communication is when you don’t speak at all. Dr. Deborah Tannen, a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, sums it up better than I ever could:
“As soon as you need words there’s already a failure to understand each other so you’re repairing that failure by using words.”
Unlike English and Dutch speakers, the Japanese are happy with silences of 8.2 seconds, according to a study by Haru Yamada, a senior lecturer of linguistics.
Matthew MacLachlan, a former head of intercultural and communication skills training at Learnlight, states how some cultures use this to their advantage:
“Chinese negotiators are very, very aware that Americans like to fill silences and they are trained to stay silent and impassive because that will make the Americans uncomfortable and possibly make concessions without the Chinese having to do anything.”
While it may feel unnatural, staying silent can be incredibly beneficial.
Where Silence is Most Powerful
I like silence. Not only is it relaxing to float in your thoughts, but it also provides a helpful measurement for all sorts of things in your life. Here are a few:
- When you begin dating someone, silence can help you gauge how comfortable you both are. It can feel stuffy and awkward, which is a sign you may have a way to go.
- During a job interview or business deal, taking a deliberate pause before answering demonstrates composure, as you’re not filling thinking time with mindless waffle.
- You significantly reduce the chances of saying something you don’t mean or will regret. Keanu Reeves is a perfect example of saying something with intent.
Whether on a date or during a business deal, you may feel what you say is most important. So, when you’re put on the spot, you overthink, and the pressure silently builds. Before you know it, you can’t stop cringing at yourself on the drive home (I’ve been there too many times).
However, silence can be just as important as words. It can save you from yourself and give you an advantage over others. When you’re silent, you’re listening.
Move Beyond Your Instincts
It may feel unnatural, but when you next can, take a second and think. Move beyond the emotional response and focus on saying something you mean. It might save you a lot of trouble down the line.
Start with your friends — ask them a question and don’t talk, just sit there and listen. Once you feel more comfortable, move on to a more professional setting.
Or, get a boring retail job, and you’ll be forced to practice. It’s up to you.
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