When my boy was a toddler most of the time our house echoed with the sound of his toys or rhymes and at times when there was silence at home, we used to fret thinking something is not right. Not so comfortable with the silence we used to look for what the little boy is up to and as expected he would be busy removing tyres of his toy or wiping water on the floor that he had spilled to see the magic it unfolds or fiddling with the TV remote control and its batteries.... the list is endless. Perhaps that is what had conditioned my mind about silence and made me anxious whenever it was quiet at home. However, perceptions change and so has mine. Living in a world filled with chatter, chaos, noise, and uncertainty I now long for a space of peace therefore I try and listen to the silence.
When we listen to silence as Rumi, the great Persian poet had said, it has so much to say. The best thing about silence is, that it allows us to pause. While we are busy being busy, we need those moments of silence. It makes our minds work better and perhaps lets us rewind, rethink and reassess our thoughts and actions when we get stuck. With life and work pressure, our brain that has resorted to ‘autopilot mode’ needs that few moments of silence to reboot itself. The pause in the form of silent prayer or a silent moment with a loved one helps towards improving one’s mental, emotional, and physical well-being. But surprisingly, silence doesn’t carry the same meaning across different cultures.
As words, silence in communication varies from culture to culture and even within a culture depending on the context. The context of a situation defines the power and message of silence. It’s interesting to know how silence conveys a message. An American will not be comfortable with silence during a conversation, therefore, would prefer to rush and fill in, unlike the Japanese who think for a while and speak. The cultural differences are such that in America silence is perceived as a lack of engagement, disagreement, and disinterest while in Japan silence reflects the cultural concept of ‘Haragei’, which drives people to exchange thoughts and feelings without using words. It is the facial expression, timing, sounds, and silence that convey a message.
We, neither behave as Americans nor as Japanese, we tend to work midway. However culturally we are a listening lot given the high-power distance that exists in our culture. The silence is a way of showing our respect to the speaker and waiting for our turn to speak as it builds trust. To build trust we need to listen and for that, we cannot talk. While we think about the two ends of the intercultural spectrum, silence confuses us as it paves way for a wide range of perceptions and assumptions. It makes us uncomfortable and more often we rush to fill the space.
Silence louder than words
Imagine if a co-worker comes to work and remains silent. The other teammates will start finding reasons for the silence. The assumptions may or may not be true but this silence is louder than words. To add to this discomfort is the pandemic that has made every one of us rely on technology and virtual space. With the fear of the virus and to ensure work continuity amid the pandemic, organizations have no choice but to adopt the hybrid work environment. It may be new, but the challenges associated with connecting and communicating at work aren’t new. Face-to-face conversation has almost become a passé and virtual meetings, emails, and texts are the new normal at work.
When working remotely, the potential miscues possible in communication is more. During virtual meetings, it just takes a few moments of silence from a team member to leave the other members to wonder if the silence was due to network issues. This is because we are uncomfortable with the silence at the other end. That uneasiness gets amplified if emails/texts are ignored and ignoring emails and messages is almost like ignoring the sender who has just crossed by. This doesn’t show how busy we are but how blatantly rude we are. The reason to ignore can be many and can be sometimes genuine but a couple of lines of acknowledgment talk volumes about our work ethic. The assumptions followed by the silence are detrimental to the individual/organization's image. We are instinctive beings and our assumptions come from our instinctive reactions. Therefore, the longer the silence faster the assumptions will turn into conclusions. And we don’t want that, do we?
So, what can we do?
Our daily routines are inundated with distractions and responsibilities. The wise will leverage the power of silence to heal and replenish their mental resources. Hence silence is golden. The same rule doesn’t apply when communication depends on technology, when emails and texts have replaced face-to-face communication, and when we cannot read nonverbal cues. The virtual space that we operate in leaves us guessing what the other person intends to say therefore it's better to be clear and precise in what we say or write rather than resorting to email/text ghosting.
The least we can do is instead of email ghosting drop a line acknowledging the email. Let’s aim to shoot back a quick reply, even if it’s just to say you’ll get onto it later. All of us are busy and due to our constraints, we cannot immediately respond but can at least acknowledge. Being overwhelmed with emails/texts is no excuse. If we are bad at responding to people, we cannot be good at our work.
For most of us, the anxiety that builds up when someone has digitally snubbed us makes us feel as if our emails and texts have gone into the black hole and we cannot figure out what happened. This silence then heightens the anxiety within us and we tend to think about the incomplete tasks more often falling prey to the Zeigarnik effect. The Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik had suggested that people remember unfinished or interrupted tasks better than completed tasks. So, when we get to experience silence after sending an email the Zeigarnik effect comes to play. Though text and emails are wonderful for speed and clarity, trickier to figure out what went wrong when we are ghosted.
Although difficult for most of us, let us try to respond to others as quickly as we want them to respond to us. For, beyond that silence lies our instinct to quickly jump to conclusions.
Published in Business 360 on January 21st, 2022