Awkward silence

One thing I’ve noticed about Americans is that they don’t like silence. Now don’t get me wrong here. Anybody who knows me will attest to the fact that I’m quite a talker myself. But, as much as I enjoy talking, I’m also comfortable with not talking. When I was growing up, my family would often sit in the same room just reading our respective books/newspapers and not talking with each other. Just because you’re next to somebody doesn’t mean you have to be talking with them constantly. You can also spend quality time together quietly.

But I feel like for most Americans, silence is synonymous with awkwardness. If there is a pause in the conversation, that’s a bad thing, and it must be filled with more chatter. It doesn’t matter what you say, just say something quickly to stop that uncomfortable gap.

A good example of this is when two people meet and the one person asks, “How are you?” and the other immediately responds with the scripted answer of “I’m great, how are you?” But once the first person has answered “I’m great, too!” then the canned call-and-response greeting ends and there is a lapse in the conversation and… OH NO, WHAT DO WE SAY NOW?!

Well, you could try repeating the “How are you?” question again. I know that sounds absurd, but I swear I’ve overheard several silence-avoiding conversations where the person has simply repeated “How are you?” several times. I mean, that’s less awkward than silence, right? Right? Right?

I find that since returning to the US, I actually speak less in group situations than when I was among my European friends abroad. I think it’s because my instinct is to wait for a lapse in the conversation to take my turn to speak. But the problem is, there never is a lapse in the conversation; the instant one person stops talking, another person starts. Or, more often, one person interrupts the speaker before they’ve finished (before soon enough being interrupted themselves). So I just never quite manage to get a word in.

So not only do we Americans talk loudly, but we also talk continuously. Now somebody please say something, because I’m about to finish talking.



Filed under Communications

3 responses to “Awkward silence

  1. Kim

    I’ve seen research on this. It’s not true for Americans generally, just ones from the NY–DC area. other areas of the country differ in their preferred pauses between statements. I find also notice it when interviewing people. I like to let pauses lengthen…..sources often talk more just to fill the silence. But I have to wait a lot longer for a pause to discomfit someone from, say, Nebraska.

    • Liberiana

      Fascinating. Thank you for sharing this observation. I had heard that reporters/journalists often use intentional pauses to get their interviewees to give more information. The fact that you have observed a regional variation in response to this technique is highly interesting.

  2. Pingback: Interrogation | Home Strange Home

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