The Role of Silence in Intercultural Understanding.

The Role of Silence in Intercultural Understanding.
James Hatch

As the spectre of war once again darkens our hope for humanity and inflicts unmentionable suffering on all caught within its swath, not to mention the devastation to all life on the planet, the din and destruction become deafening. Yet, it is silence wherein the probable solution to these conflicts remains. For when the guns are silent, and the rage has abetted to allow for listening, then we can begin to hear each other. Hearing and listening are not the same, for the latter expects that we put aside current thoughts, feelings and obstructions and open ourselves to the words and gestures of the other, for they become windows to the soul. 


Yet silence is not universally understood or experienced among the various people across the globe. As globally aware and inter-culturally literate people, we must understand that depending on one’s culture, not to mention individual preference, the role silence plays varies greatly. I think of a personal experience. When my wife and I first went on a date. We went to a local restaurant. She hardly spoke, whereas I tried to keep the conversation hopping along. At the end of the date, she said goodbye, and I thought that was it. When I asked about it years later, she said she enjoyed the date. I explained that I thought it had been a disaster as she had said so little. She said, ‘No, I was listening to how we were when we were silent together’. 


It took me a few years to understand what she meant, but with time, I have understood. Partially as a result of my nerves and partially as a result of my recent acculturation in Canada, I had thought she was bored to tears. She, raised in Amakusa, Japan, was probing deeper beyond the words to see how actions, words and non-verbal communication were aligning. 


She heard things differently than I did.


I tell this story because it is important not to interpret silence within the confines of our echo chamber of culture. Silence can be a means of agreeing, disagreeing or actively listening. The person talking the most may not be most committed to the current topic; instead, silent people can be far more engaged and committed. They are just not overly vocal. Not all cultures are debate-driven. Some have a strong sense of deference to age, experience or authority. Silence may also be a means of navigating a new idea or a norm - think of the immigrant child exposed to a new expectation for learning in a language they may not comprehend.


Understanding silence and its potential for listening in intercultural communication can be a vital building block in enhancing mutual understanding and respect while providing the ‘space’ wherein we ‘hear’ each other. Such meaningful and intentional silence can offer a bridge to understanding the other and bridging gaps once filled with hate and gunfire.

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