EESE 7/2000

Metaphorical and Interactional Uses of Silence

Karlfried Knapp (Erfurt)


1. Metaphors and Evaluations
2. Stereotypes and Categorizations
3. Non-Vocalizations and Volubility
4. Problems for Research
5. References


1. Metaphors and Evaluations

The concept of "silence" is fascinating for many people, not least because it is often more than just the absence of sound. It has been described as a powerful tool of communication in many fields of human expression. This can be seen from the multitude of uses that are made of this notion both in the arts - in particular: in theoretical reflexions on the arts - and in everyday language.

For example, in the visual arts, the lack of any representational item in monochrome painting as, for example, in the works of Robert Rauschenbach and Yves Klein is frequently interpreted as the silence of painting, as expressing the idea that painting is no longer regarded as a medium of relevance in the period of post-modernism (Hafif 1997). In the famous piece for piano 4' 33'' by John Cage, where for four and a half minutes no music is played at all, this non-use of the only instrument during the performance is referred to by the composer as a silence "opening the doors of the music to the sounds that happen to be in the environment" (Cage 1966: 7-8), thus expressing the fundamental tenet of what came to be known as "experimental music", namely, that composed music should not be separated from naturally occurring sounds. In literature - or rather: literary theory - among many other uses of the concept, the relation of the implied reader to the text has been described variously as a "rhetoric of silence" (e.g. Block de Behar 1995). In a different sense, modern poets who are dissatisfied with the impurity of contemporary language claim to resort to silence as an unspoilt, "chaste" form of artistic expression (Sontag 1966). Even more radical is the request to silence literature completely against the background of the inexpressible experiences of genocide and totalitarianism, as formulated in Adorno's well-known lapidary negation "no poetry after Auschwitz" (Adorno 1984: 433). In everyday language, we find, for example, headlines such as "Kosovo Crisis: Silence between Brussels and Moscow", which captures a lack of communication in the diplomatic relations between NATO and Russia.

One common denominator of these and similar uses of silence is that they refer metaphorically to something which is either absent or ought to be absent. Another one is the fact that the absences referred to by these metaphors are striking and noteworthy, inviting reactions, controversies and evaluations. Hence the interest these silences find in public and academic dis-course.

However, evaluations of silence can also be found in everyday language usage. For instance, the relative value of silence versus speech can be inferred from the proverbs, sayings and set phrases of a speech community that topicalize these phenomena. Many languages have proverbs that express a positive appreciation of silence, such as the English "Silence is golden", the Latin "Si tacuisses, philosophus manisses", or the Japanese "The evil all comes out of the mouth". On the other hand, metaphors like the English "the silence of the tomb", that equate silence with death, reveal a more negative orientation. Collections of such examples provide evidence for the assumption that folk notions and value judgements concerning silence exist in many cultures. But as can be seen e.g. from Stedje's (1983) contrastive analysis of data from German and Swedish, these folk notions and evaluations - despite some overlap - can turn out to be culturally relative.

In this context, the connotative meanings that are apparent in collocations used for describing various kinds of silence can also be telling. It is worth noting here that, as in most Western languages, the attributive adjectives normally combined with the noun silence tend to be less than positive. Expressions like an exuberant silence, a happy silence etc. for most speakers of English represent violations of collocational expectations. Far more frequent are combinations by which silence is qualified as uneasy, strange, threatening, awkward, eerie, leaden etc. These collocational preferences can be seen to reflect a more general attitude towards the occurrence of silence in interpersonal communication. As has been pointed out by social-psychological research, speakers who make more use of behaviors related to silence by pausing or by being reticent tend to be perceived negatively by their communication partners.1

This negative reaction even holds for self-perception. Research by Feldstein/ Alberti/ Ben Debba (1979) has shown that people who talk more and quickly and who typically take longer turns at talk and shorter pauses attribute to themselves characteristics of being cooperative, warmhearted, easy-going, competent, open and sociable. By contrast, people who talk less, take shorter turns at talk and longer pauses regard themselves as being uncooperative, rigid, detached, less competent, restrained and shy. According to Scollon (1985), such perceptions and self-perceptions mirror a widespread generative metaphor applied to human communication in modern industrialized societies. This is the metaphor of the machine where smooth talk is taken to be the natural state of the smoothly running cognitive and interactional machine and where silences indicate malfunction, trouble or failure.


2. Stereotypes and Categorizations

In most cultures2 participants in interpersonal interactions constantly make attributions about their communication partners. Attributions can be described as everyday explanations which interactants relate to the behaviors of other persons during ongoing discourse to reduce the uncertainty about the communication partner, about his or her character, traits, motives and actions, in order to make sense of what is going on and to orient themselves in the unfolding interaction. Such explanations are especially important in interactions with strangers where uncertainty is highest (Berger / Bradac 1982). Attributions are based on perceptions of features of the communication situation - in particular, of the interactants' overt behaviors - and on interpretations of these behaviors against the background of what in the respective culture is taken for granted as normal and plausible. Despite this common basis, even in intracultural communication the interpretation of a perceived behavior by an observer does not always coincide with the character, motives or intentions of the actor (Nisbett/ Caputo/ Legant/ Maracek 1973). It is evident that in intercultural communication this process is even more susceptible to mis-interpretations. Misunderstandings may occur because both the forms of behavior that carry a particular meaning and the meanings or evaluations of individual forms of behavior may be different in the cultures involved.

As has been pointed out over the past few years by a vast body of research, forms of behavior related to silence figure prominently as potential sources of intercultural misunderstanding.3 In view of the metaphor of malfunction it does not come as a surprise that members of cultures or ethnic groups who conventionally communicate with more or longer phases of non-talk and less talk proper, are perceived negatively, at least by interactants from Western cultures, and that repeated contact with members from cultures that in this sense are "more silent" leads to generalizing individual person-related negative attributions to negative stereotypes of different ethnic groups or cultures.

The stereotype of the "silent Indian" is a case in point here. Compared to white mainstream Americans, American Indians like the Apache (Basso 1970, 1979) or Athabaskans (Scollon / Scollon 1979, 1981) show less initiative in introducing a topic and make longer pauses between turns at talk. Because of this difference, white Americans tend to attribute to the Indians qualities such as being passive, sullen, withdrawn, unresponsive, uncooperative, lazy, and stupid (Scollon 1985). These attributions are, of course, a result of the Western bias. In other cultures, e.g. in the Chinese4 or Japanese5 culture, where being silent in interpersonal interaction is viewed as manifesting harmony, silence is valued more positively than talk. With Indians, being reticent signals experience and wisdom.

Stereotypes of this kind are problematical, too, because they treat as categorical what, in fact, is variable and relative. For example, Tannen (1984) points out that the communicative style of English speaking New York Jews, which is characterized above all by a fast rate of speech, fast turn-taking and persistence in introducing and sticking to one's topics, is perceived by Caucasian Americans from other regions and other ethnic back-grounds as dominant, pushy and obtrusive. From the perspective of the Indian, the very style of these Americans, however, is evaluated as manifesting the same negative qualities of dominance, noisiness and obtrusiveness (Basso 1979).

The same relativity holds for the stereotype of the "silent Finn". According to Lehtonen / Sarajavaa (1985) and Lehtonen (1995), the characterization of Finns as representing a "silent culture" is due to the facts that - among other features - Finns in comparison to Central and South Europeans are more reticent in verbal interactions, take longer pauses at turns of talk and speak at a slower rate. Also Finns are perceived as being comparatively direct. Widén (1985) reports that German business-people may react to these behaviors with negative attributions like the ones mentioned above. However, as Salo-Lee (1993) observes, from an American perspective Germans are regarded as communicatively direct and versatile - or rather: non-versatile - as are Finns.

There is the additional problem that descriptions of the communicative styles of e.g. the Athabaskan Indians by Scollon / Scollon (1979, 1981), the Apache Indians by Basso (1971, 1979), the Warm Springs Indians by Philips (1976), the Japanese by Okabe (1983) or Barnlund (1985), the Chinese by Wang (1977) or the Old Order Amish and Hutterites in Pennsylvania by Enninger / Raith (1982) all lead to the conclusion that these styles share features which also characterize the "silent Finn". Given the enormous differences between these cultures, any attempt at relating these features to culture-specific sources seems to be of little value only.

All this evidence suggests that one has to be careful not to use "silence" or "being silent" as a descriptive category from an emic point of view, i.e. from the perspective of a particular - usually one's own - culture. Quite obviously, the tendency to label as "silence" anything which according to expectations about a normal format in any domain of human expression is absent has contributed to treating as universal both the behaviors subsumed under this vague everyday language notion and their perceptions.6 However, for the description of cultural differences in communicative style and the explanation of possible problems in intercultural interactions little is gained if "silence" is used as a passe-partout metaphor, stretched endlessly to cover the most diverse absences of behavior or representation. For these purposes, it is essential to know what exactly are the formal features of face-to-face interaction that are perceived by the participants as pauses, silences, non-talk, non-communication or other phenomena usually subsumed under the label of "silence", what are the communicative functions of these pheno-mena, and what are the occurrences of these phenomena across situations and individuals. But as Sajavaara / Lehtonen (1997) rightly emphasize, there is still in this subject area a lack of conceptual and categorical clarity, which in turn, particularly affects the field of cross-cultural and intercultural studies.

For this reason, in the following I will outline a set of etic descriptive categories which can be applied to the phenomena that are loosely referred to as manifestations of "silence". These categories build partly on other previous work, in particular on Saville-Troike (1985) and Knapp (1998), and partly they are the result of my continued dealing with this subject, which here made further differentiation seem reasonable. 7 However, the categories exposed below should rather be considered as a preliminary orientation than as a definitive surveying of the field. At this point, they have to be evaluated against their usefulness to generate new hypotheses for research.

3. Non-Vocalizations and Volubility

The forms of behavior that are usually dealt with in relation to a more or less metaphorical concept of "silence" can be differentiated into two broad sets of categories. On the one hand, there are phases of non-talk or absence of sound, respectively, around or during a verbal interaction. On the other hand, there are regulations for the use of talk vs. non-talk, especially for its occurrence and amount in a particular speech community and interaction situation. To avoid the heterogeneous terminology which characterizes much of the extant discussion, the first set of phenomena - i.e. the phases of non-talk - will be referred to here by the general term "non-vocalization". For the second set, which belongs to the rules for speaking studied in the ethnography of communication, the general term "volubility" will be used.

This paper is concerned with cases of non-vocalization and volubility in and around ongoing interpersonal interaction. i.e. cases which Saville-Troike (1985) describes as "non-communicative silences" are not considered here. These are e.g. non-talk in public encounters between strangers which serves to avoid social contact such as between seatmates on a train or accidental co-users of an elevator. Similarly, non-vocalizations mandated by practical situational constraints, as in Enninger's (1987) example of the sound engineers recording of a symphony, are not dealt with here.

Non-vocalizations in ongoing verbal interactions are commonly referred to as pauses in and between turns at talk. In psycholinguistic research, in-turn-pauses are usually conceived of as hesitation phenomena, i.e. as interrup-tions in the flow of speech which a speaker uses for planning his or her subsequent utterance or part of an utterance. Because they have this function, they are also referred to as cognitive pauses (Goldman-Eiseler 1968). These pauses are made subconsciously; their frequency and length is determined on the one hand by the cognitive complexitiy of the speaker's communica-tive intention. On the other hand their length and occurrence depends to a large extent on the prosodic structure of the respective language.8 Turn-internal pauses do not express any propositional content. It is often assumed that they do not even transmit connotations or attributions. For example, Gumperz (1982) according to his research views these non-vocalizations - owing to the the fact that they are part of the overall prosody of the language - as posing no signifi-cant problems for intercultural communication, because they are not susceptible to cultural influences. However, I will point out below that even these non-vocalizations can be problematical in intercultural interactions.

Yet the problematic potential that non-vocalizations occuring between turns or rather at transition relevance places have for intercultural communication cannot be denied. Transition relevance places (TRPs) are the points where there may be a change of speakers during conversations (Sacks / Schegloff / Jefferson 1978). They occur after completed sense-units of a speaker's con-tribution. At each of these points, participants may choose to take a turn, with or without delay, or not to take a turn. Following the terminology suggested by Sacks / Schegloff / Jefferson (1978) and Levinson (1983), I will distinguish between gaps and lapses. Gaps are those instances of non-vocalizations that take place after the current speaker has terminated his or her turn and before the current speaker claims further to hold the floor or a subsequent speaker claims the next turn. If the current speaker stops speaking and no one else takes the next turn, the ensuing phase of non-vocalization before talking continues is called a lapse. Although it is almost impossible to determine their exact temporal extension, gaps and lapses tend to be longer than turn-internal pauses.

TRPs, gaps and lapses play a crucial role for allowing uncontroversial speaker continuation and smooth turn transition. However, cultures vary considerably with respect to the conventions where TRPs are possible and how long a gap or lapse should be. As a consequence of this, in intercultural communi-cation several problems may arise with regard to the interlocutors' differing expectations of what constitutes normal behavior: A speaker may offer or try to take the turn at points which, for the communication partner, are not TRPs, or - where turn-taking is possible unanimously - the speaker may take his or her turn either too slowly or too quickly, i.e. by producing non-vocalizations which are either too long or too short. Like turn-internal pauses, the non-vocalizations between pauses do not express any propositional content. They do, however, transport connotations and give rise to attributions - in particular to negative ones like those mentioned above, when their occurrences and lengths deviate from what is taken as culturally and situationally normal.

For example, according to Sacks / Schegloff / Jefferson (1978), a change of speakers may take place smoothly after every completed sense unit of a current speaker's turn. This implies that there are TRPs even after meaningful parts of sentences. Conversational data from English and German support this assumption. However, as can be inferred from Lehtonen / Savajaara (1985), the communicative style of Finns is different in that points for pos-sible speaker-changes occur only after several sense units.9 As a result, the average turn of a native speaker of Finnish is clearly longer in comparison. It is interesting to note here that backchannel-behavior - i.e those hms, yeses, oh reallys, I sees etc. and non-verbal signals like nods, gaze or rhythmic movements of the body, by which hearers acknowledge to the speaker that they are listening and involved10 - in Finnish as well as in Ger-man typically cluster around TRPs. The fact that Finns tend to use less backchannel signals than speakers of other European languages obviously correlates with the longer distance between TRPs in this language. The impression that interactants from other cultures are reserved or unresponsive may to a large extent be conditioned by differences in the distribution of TRPs in general. This, at least, seems to be a worthwhile hypothesis for future research.

Apart from the distribution of between-turn non-vocalizations it is their length which can also give rise to intercultural misunderstandings, not only at the level of faulty attributions but also on the practical level of organizing the flow of a conversation. According to Scollon / Scollon (1981:25), a major source for the mutual frustration of Athabaskans and speakers of English lies in the fact that what is intended by Athabaskans as a turn-internal pause is - due to its length - perceived by the English speaker as a turn-relinquishing gap, and that the gap an Athabaskan requires before he or she takes the turn as a next speaker or continues to hold the floor is too long for the English interactant to expect a contribution from him or her. The net result is that the English speaker goes on and on and that the Athabaskan can never get in a word edgewise. Socio-pragmatic failures like these are a result of the self-evident and yet most problematical feature of pauses, gaps and lapses in conversations: they are joint productions, interactionally accomplished by the verbal behavior of all participants.

With respect to length, but also with respect to other features, it may be worthwhile to introduce a third kind of non-vocalization between turns. I would like to label this type of non-vocalization disengagement. As mentioned above, a lapse is a non-vocalization which occurs when the current speaker relinquishes his turn, but no other speaker takes the next one. A lapse is terminated when one of the conversationalists present self-selects as the next speaker. In this case, however, the termination of the lapse would fulfil the definition of a gap. There is clearly an empirical problem in distinguishing lapses from gaps if this is done solely on the basis of the rules for turntaking as introduced by Sacks / Schegloff / Jefferson (1978) and Levinson (1983). This distinction seems, nevertheless, reasonable if one takes the co-text and the context of these non-vocalizations into account. Although it is difficult to come up with a clearcut definition at this point, one can justify its use by the fact that lapses have a tendency to last longer than gaps and to take place preferably at positions pivotal for the overall structure of a conversation such as introductions of new topics. In addition, gaps can be said to be indicative of a focused interaction, where participants gather closely together and openly cooperate to sustain a single focus of attention (Goffman 1963: 24). This is because the termination of a gap by the next speaker indicates his or her focussing on the continuation of the activity of "doing conversation". Lapses, by contrast, may also occur in unfocused interaction, where participants do not concentrate on keeping a conversation going by jointly creating a coherent flow of turns but are rather concerned with the management of their copresence (Goffman 1963:24). An example for the latter might be elderly people sharing a park bench, with one person after some time of non-talk saying something like "Yes, yes, that's how it is" and the other person again after some time may respond with something like "Indeed it is."

Disengangements, by contrast, are copresences that are not even unfocused interactions in the sense just mentioned. Disengagements are temporary conversational "time outs" such as they occur e.g. in an office where colleagues after their morning greetings, some discussion of work-related issues or some chatting refrain from talking and concentrate on their work. While working without talk, they are clearly not concerned with mutually acknowledging their copresence; their posture and gaze, for example, will indicate that they are not oriented towards interaction. However, these situations are not "non-communicative silences" in the terminology of Saville-Troike. They differ from these by the way they are framed. Strangers meeting accidentally in a train compartment may, of course attempt to end the situation of non-communication by initiating a conversation. To do so, the conversation has to be started by typical opening moves such as atten-tion getters, establishing a shared topic, introductions etc. In particular, the speaker initiating the conversation has to check whether the potential communication partner is ready to engage in a conversation at all, i.e. to switch from the status of merely being copresent to being engaged in social interaction. This is clearly different in situations where the absence of talk is a result of conversational disengagement. In the office situation, for instance, an office worker may - given that the situation allows such interruption of the colleague's work - at any time initiate talk by making requests or asking questions like "May I just have your pen, please?" or "Do you know, by the way, what became of the tall blonde from the sales department?". This is possible because an interactive relation between the people present in the office was established by the morning greeting and by a shared previous communication history. Their copresence thus has a different quality from "non-communicative silence", because the interaction is only temporarily suspended.

It seems to be another worthwile hypothesis for reseach that cultural diffe-rences with respect to non-vocalizations might be related to different conceptions about the extensions of disengagements. For example, Enninger (1987) reports that an Amish person on seeing a friend may enter his house without knocking at the door, offer no salute, sit down and either be silent for a while or immediately proceed to the business-phase of the interaction. Similarly, Saville-Troike (1982:7) cites a report on the behavior of an Apache who after an absence of several months returned to his family: Without any greeting, after several minutes of speechlessly standing near the fire where his family were collected, he joined the round and engaged in the ongoing conversation. The socially acceptable omission of framing elements like greetings in such cases suggests the assumption that in some cultures friendship or family relations create a context which is perceived as an uninterrupted discourse in which even a case of very long non-communication is nothing but a temporary disengagement.

The non-vocalizations dealt with so far can give rise to attributions, but they do not express propositional content. This does not apply to those non-vocalizations that I want to refer to as silence in its proper sense. Silence is the intentional non-vocal realization of a communicative act. As such, it can be attributed to a particular participant in the interaction. Silence does not have any material substance - or no "locution" in the terms of Searle's (1969) speech act theory - which like a single word or a gesture by itself could signal the intention or illocution of its producer.

Interpreting what is meant by the non-vocal act is strongly tied to cultural conventions, as is the actual occurrence of silences. With respect to such conventions, one can distinguish two major types of silence. Firstly, there is conventional silence where a communicative act is performed non-vocally in accordance with the prevailing conventions. Secondly, there is significant silence, which is chacterized by the non-realization of a verbal act that con-ventionally is expected to occur.

Conventional silence can have different functions. One is that of enacting a ritual and the other, that of enacting a social routine. Ritual Silences are non-vocal manifestations of acts which are prescribed by ritual, e.g. the silent prayer in a religious service.

Routine silences can be used to perform single communicative acts as well as complete speech events. A frequently cited example for a silently enacted speech event is Hymes' (1966) description of what can constitute a visit among the Wishram Indians. In this culture, it may suffice that a friend comes to one's house, sits for a while and leaves without a word being exchanged. The fact that the visitor takes the trouble to come is communi-cation enough. With respect to single communicative acts routinely performed by silence, one could refer to Japanese, where declines and refusals are preferably realized by non-vocalizations and where uttering such negative expressions as no or I disagree openly would be linguistically and socially marked.11 But Japanese convention requires also that a young woman who receives a marriage proposal has to remain silent if she wants to agree. Oksaar (1996) reports that among the Sames in Northern Finland, the greeting upon entering a house is manifested by a period of time when both visitors and hosts stand together in silence.12

Cultures may differ, however, not only with respect to whether a particular communicative act is conventionally performed verbally or by silence. There may also be differences as to whether in a certain situation a particular verbal routine is expected at all, be it a single utterance or a move in a multi-part act sequence. For example, German hosts usually open a meal by wishing their guests "Guten Appetit", literally "good appetite", a formula which causes embarrassment to most natives speakers of British English, who do not know this social routine. Many Germans, by contrast, find the unframed beginning of the eating phase at a meal with Britons rather awkward. With regard to non-occu-rences of acts in a conventionalized sequence, Renwick (1988), for example, reports that the sequence "offer - thanking for the offer - acceptance of thanking" which in American English is realized by a sequence of verbal utterances like Here's your beer - Thanks - You're welcome in the Austra-lian context is conventionally acted out differently: Here's your beer - Thanks - Silence. In this case, a routine move in an interactional sequence which is conventional in one culture is by convention not used in the other one, vio-lating expectations of the Ameri-cans about appropriate behavior and possibly inviting inferences about the motives of the Australian non-speaker.

This case comes close to instances of non-conventional or - in the termino-logy of conversational analysts - significant silences. Significant silences are those abstentions from speech where according to the rules of turntaking a verbal utterance is normally required. The most clearcut cases are adjacency pairs such as greeting - greeting back, question - answer, request - indication of compliance. If e.g. a person does not come up as a next speaker with a greeting back after a greeting and remains silent instead, this silence is significant, indicating a problem on the level of social relations. If, however, a next speaker does not answer a question or react to a request verbally, this may be due to the fact that negative responses are dispreferred in most cultures and that - as with the Japanese - a dispreferred second of an adjacency pair might preferably be realized by silence instead of formulating some evasive or explicitly negative response. The potential for intercultural miscommunication at these points in interactions is obvious: As a verbal utterance is expected after the completion of the first pair part, the ensuing silence will usually be interpreted as an intentional and meaningful reaction of the non-speaker, quite independent of other reasons that may hinder him or her from a sufficiently quick response.

So far I have outlined some types of formal manifestations of non-vocalizations. A description of the communicative style of a culture must, however, also take into consideration the occurrence of talk - in particular - the amount of talk in relation to such nonvocalizations. These aspects of what contributes to everyday language labels such as "silent Finn" or "talkative Italian" I would like to subsume under the general term volubility.

One subcategory of volubility obviously is inclination for talk. There are many speech communities in which establishing and maintaining interpersonal interaction is accomplished by speaking. This is the main function of small talk. If one does not talk in an interpersonal encounter, the continuation of the interaction at hand is put at a risk. Not to talk with others would be embarrassing at the very least. On the other hand, there are many speech communities where the constant ratification of the social relation established in the encounter by talking is not necessary. In such cultures, social interaction can take place by accomplishing the respective speech event by silence. If one places cultures on a continuum with respect to their general inclination for talk, then the Belizan speech communities described by Kernan / Sondergren / French (1977), where it is deemed impolite not to fill every moment with talk, probably is a candidate for the "more inclined" pole, whereas the Indians - and possibly, the Finns - would be allocated to the "less inclined" end.13

As a second and related subcategory of volubility, reference should be made to (sub-) cultural verbosity. By this I mean the amount of talk which is conventionally expected as fulfilling the Gricean conversational maxim of quantity (make your contribution as informative as is required and do not make it more informative than is required) and the maxim of manner (be brief). Although many cultures have sayings that deprecate prolixity such as in the English saying "brevity is the spice of life", cultures quite clearly differ with respect to what is accepted as being informative and brief. Quite in line with the stereotype of the talkative peoples around the Mediterranean sea, there are countless anecdotes of the kind that a culturally appropriate rendition of a Westerner's simple "yes"- or "no"- answer to a question of an Arab takes an interpreter to produce a turn of at least five minutes. Such anecdotes may be gross exaggerations; however, as stereotypes always have a grain of truth in them, they point to different needs for linguistic adornments or even information in general across cultures. Again one could conceive of a scale of verbosity, where Arabs would be placed close to the "more"-pole and Finns more in the "less"-direction".

As a final characteristic of volubility, communicativeness shall be considered. I regard communicativeness, too, as a general feature of a culture's communicative style. This subcategory refers to the amount of topics that are freely accessible for unmarked everyday conversation. An example here could be the culturally accepted degree of self-disclosure, that is the revelation of personal opinions, abilities, problems etc. which for example according to Barnlund (1979) is restricted to a much narrower range of topics with the Japanese than with the Americans.

These categories describing types of non-vocalizations and quantitave dimensions of the occurrence of talk vs. non-talk can, in my view, be used for a more exact description of the behaviors commonly subsumed under the general label "silence" and for a comparison across cultures. They should also be used to determine to what extent both the occurrence of non-vocalizations and the amount of talk is variable within a particular culture and to what extent it is dependent on situational features. Components of situations such as the type of event, the topic, the function of the interaction from the participants' point of view, their status or relation towards each other and similar features described in the ethnography of communication have to be taken into account to go beyond general stereotypic labels. This clearly requires further empirical research, mainly within the paradigm of conversational analysis.

Categories like these can also be helpful in determining to what extent communicative styles stereotypically referred to as "silent" do in fact pose problems in intercultural contacts with "less silent" styles. Again this is an empirical question. As is known from conversational analyses, not every communicative difference has the tendency to cause conflict. For example, in an analysis of a Finnish-German business negotiation Lenz (1990) has shown that although differences could be observed in initiating topics, in managing turns at talk and in backchannel behavior, these differences did not affect the outcome of the interaction. Quite obviously, whether the conflicting potential of style differences can indeed emerge seems to depend on a vast array of situational factors. Among these, the functional aims pursued by the participants are of particular importance, in particular, whether their goals for the ongoing interaction coincide. Another relevant factor is the inclination of the participants to define the social relationship with the communication partner as positive or negative and correspondingly to regard the interaction as convergent or divergent. As has been pointed out in the framework of sociolinguistic speech accommodation theory,14 intercultural conflicts result from differences in communicative style only in those cases where these differences are instrumentalized for interaction strategic purposes. In this sense, cultural differences subsumed under the label of "silence" can be exploited as a resource to interactionally establish conflict. And against this background, negative stereotypes like the "silent Indian" or "silent Finn" can be revealing with regard to power relations between ethnic groups or cultures.

4. Problems for Research

Thus, more empirical research is needed both with respect to intraculturally determining the occurrence of types of non-vocalizations and to determining the amout of talk in various communication situations as well as with respect to revealing potential intercultural conflicts. To conclude, I will briefly touch upon some problems that this research will have to deal with.

As non-vocalizations are material nothings which are interpreted, the question "whose non-vocalization" is an important one for participants of an interaction. The fact that pauses, gaps, lapses and disengagements are joint productions of the participants does not imply that the occurrence of such non-vocalizations may not be attributed to one particular participant. In fact, these non-vocalizations can at times be perceived wrongly as intentional acts, i.e. be viewed as somebody's silences .

For example, a speaker can easily be misled to regard the behavior of his or her interlocutor as unresponsive due to cultural differences in backchannel behavior. As pointed out above, backchannel behavior typically correlates with TRPs. Resulting from this, hearers from cultures with longer stretches of talk between TRPs will use less backchannel behavior than hearers from other cultures. One major function of backchannel behavior is to signal involvement of the hearer and support for the speaker. This is achieved by the hearer rhythmically producing non-verbal signals such as head nods or body movements and / or by emitting interjections like "uhum", "oh" etc. or verbal utterances like "yes ", "I see" or similar expressions in accordance with the speaker's prosody. If due to the positioning of TRPs, the speaker's expectations of support do not match the hearer's production of backchannel behavior, this results in what Erickson / Shultz (1982) call conversational asynchrony. The failure of even non-vocal forms of backchannelling to appear at the appropriate places is attributed to the hearer, as a hearer silence, as it were, giving the impression that the hearer is uncooperative, not interested, dishonest, or unintelligent. In this sense, turn-internal pauses can also create intercultural problems.15

A similar problem arises if a non-vocalization can be clearly identified as originating from a particular interactant, but if it is not obvious whether the non-vocalization is due to the status of still being a hearer or to the status of a speaker hesitating or being silent. As mentioned before, cultures differ with repect to the amount of time they take for gaps between-turns. Therefore, there may be a delay before the next speaker takes his or her turn which is conditioned by a cultural difference in the discourse system. However, it has been repeatedly pointed out in second language acquisition research that non-proficient L2-speakers need more time to plan their utterances than native speakers do. As a consequence, they use more hesitation phenomena in their speech.16 One type of hestitation is the cognitive pause. Given that in intercultural communication at least one party of the interaction is a more or less advanced learner of the language used, the delay realized by that speaker may also have its origin in learner-language limitations. The problem may be tripled if the next speaker does not come up with a verbal utterance at all, because the respective act in his or her culture is expressed by silence. Irrespective of what ever may be the cause of the next speaker's non-vocalization, the material nothing triggers connotations and attributions in the previous speaker, because he or she cannot distinguish between gaps, cognitve pauses before a turn, or silences.17 However, if one wants to find out to what extent cultural differences in communicative style may, in fact, lead to mis-communication and negative stereotypes, research has to identify what is the effect of culture and what is the effect of learner language.

The problem here is similar to the one that teachers have to solve in their daily classroom interaction. They have to decide whether a student who has been called on and does not talk immediately is hesitating because she is formulating an answer or whether she is silent because she does not know the answer. The problem is different, however, when the teacher does not call on a particular student but directs her question to the entire class. If no student volunteers with a reply, it is difficult if not impossible to interpret the collective non-vocalization as a silence of every individual student. The fact that students occasionally disengage from the classroom interaction and doze away, makes it difficult to rate the non-reaction by the students as silence. Students are at times only physically copresent, but are not participants of classroom interaction.

This example points to a more general problem, namely to the importance of the participant status of the interactants. In order to identify a particular kind of non-vocalization and its function, one has to identify the originator of this non-vocalization, i.e. one has to identify this person as a participant of the conversation.

It is a common experience that when a group of people is engaged in a conversation, a newcomer may appear and be standing around without any sign of involvement. For instance, he or she may wait for one party of the conversation to leave. In this case, the newcomer has the status of a bystander.18 Nevertheless it is a common experience, too, that his or her copresence can cause uncomfortable feelings with those already present. Even if the newcomer is just standing without saying a word, his or her non-vocalization can be perceived as intrusive, and although not really involved in the interaction, the bystander receives what comes close to participant status because of the interpretation of his of her non-vocalizations. However, if someone directs an open question to all the members of the group, it is unclear whether a non-vocalization of the bystander can be interpreted as his or her silence. The interesting question here is to determine under which conditions non-vocalizations of people copresent in a situation can be attributed to a particular person and, in addition, under which conditions a non-phonation can be identified as somebody's silence. As can be seen from Goodwin (1981) for intracultural conversations, gaze and posture will probably be important in determining whether a person shifts from the status of a bystander to that of a participant. As, however, non-verbal behaviors vary across cultures,19 the cues indicating participant status also differ. To decide under which conditions somebody's nonvocalization is perceived as interactionally relevant, obviously is a question for intercultural research which still requires more analyses of intercultural interactions.

Such research might also shed some light on another issue related to the question of "whose silence". This is the control speakers have over the non-vocal locution by which they want to express their illocution. To accomplish speech acts by the use of silence is, indeed, an extreme manifestation of indirectness (Tannen 1985: 97). As is the case with other forms of verbal indirectness, silence is also a means of expressing verbal politeness. This particularly applies to reactions to face-threatening acts, when a speaker may choose to be silent in order to save his or her own face or to save the face of his or her interlocutor. For instance, a speaker may react to a question with silence because he or she does not know the answer, because an honest answer would offend, disappoint etc. the other party, or would be in other ways face-threatening. Therefore, if the next speaker cancels the non-vocal locution by stating the illocution of the previous silence explicitly, this is usually percieved as impolite or as a source of interactional trouble.

Take the following example

K: By the way I have a problem with the Lithuanian doctoral student who is coming to talk about her dissertation with me next week. With the little money she has, she can't stay at a hotel, but I can't accommodate her in my appartment.

B: (3.2 secs)

K: Do you have any idea?

B: Poor guy, this is always the problem when one supervises dissertations of students from that region. That's difficult, mhm. Will you come to the meeting of the university society tonight?

Quite obviously, speaker B wants to express by his silence that he does not want to comply with the implied request to accommodate the foreign visitor. But despite his understandable frustation, speaker A was well advised not to paraphrase this silence by openly stating the implied decline of the request with something like "I see that you don't want to accommodate her", because this would have been blatantly impolite. Of course, it is always pos-sible that a next speaker cancels a previous silence by restating the silently transmitted illocution, but this is clearly marked behavior and a threat to unproblematical further interaction.

However, there are situations where such cancellations are more probable than in others, where silences can be defeated, as it were, by the subsequent speaker. Defeated silences as I want to call them seem to be a feature of conversations with asymmetrical power relations and institutionally mandated explicitness. Here the right of a speaker to preserve his or her face by remaining silent to questions, requests or other potentially face-threatening acts is limited by the rights of an interlocutor with a socially or institutionally more powerful position. This is the case e.g. at school, in job interviews, or at court.

In the classroom, a student who has been asked a question by the teacher to which he or she does not know the answer, tends not to state "I don't know" to protect his or her face. However, an excerpt like the following is not infrequent in transcriptions from classroom interactions:

Teacher: And what's the capital of Italy, erm, Susy?

Student: ( 3.0)

Teacher: You don't know, he, as always

Or in a job interview, where the interviewer wants to know something about the abilities of an applicant to judge his or her suitability for the vacant position, reactions to silence like the following are not uncommon:

Interviewer: OK, and how's your maths?

Applicant:        eh, (2.5)

Interviewer: Not so good, eh?

Here, the applicant tries to save his face by not stating his final school grade in maths; his silence has the illocution "I don't want to tell, because the grade is not good". Or at court, a defendant who remains silent to a question for his alibi at the time when a crime was committed, may at least elicit as subsequent response by the prosecutor a statement like "You do not want to tell" or "He does not want to tell", and be it only for the minutes, if not be forced into answering a yes/no-question about his whereabaouts at the time in question. Of course, a defendant at court may have more than face concerns that cause him to be silent to a question, although he has to be aware that in this context in particular, silence can be interpreted as being silent about something negative and be interpreted accordingly.

The cancellations of the previous speakers' silences in situations like these clearly seem to be a consequence of the power relations holding in the interaction. In addition, the purposes of these speech events are to achieve practical consequences like giving a grade, assigning or not assigning a job or pronouncing a judgement. These consequences can be subjected to external scrutiny and revision. Therefore, subsequent speakers frequently feel an inclination or even obligation to make the silent illocutions explicit: the interpretations of an interlocutor's behavior on which these consequences are based - in this case, the interpretations of silences - are thus transformed into objective facts.

It is fairly probable that objectivizing other speakers' behavior in this way as well as the situations in which such cancellations of silences occur are culture specific phenomena. It seems to be still another worthwile goal for research to compare if - and if so, how - defeated silences vary across cultures and to determine what consequences cultural differences in this area may have for intercultural interactions.

Finally, it should be pointed out here that cancellations of silences are even obligatory for a particular speaker role in intercultural interactions. This is the role of the interpreter. For example, in a German-Korean interaction mediated by a non-professional student interpreter, the Korean was baffled by what turned out to be a culturally insensitive question about his political convictions, and he remained silent for a while. An interpreter, by virtue of his role to establish successful interaction, which implies more than just translating,20 has at at least to deliver an interlingual paraphrase of the previous speaker's turn. In line with this role-requirement, in this situation the interpreter was heard to state the obvious "He does not say anything" as his rendering of the silence. And he also added a cross-cultural interpretation "This is a very personal matter for him, one does not speak about such topics to strangers." Interpreters by definiton cannot be silent, they have to cancel the silence of the previous speaker by giving an explicit interpretation (in all readings of the word). They can, however, prevent embarrassing silences to occur. For instance, in this example, by explaining to the German that his question is insensitive and by thus making the German reformulate or abandon his question or by rendering it in a way that is not face-threatening to the Korean. Again more research is needed to reveal the strategies by which interpreters deal with silence in intercultural interaction, though the fact that in this speaker role it is impossible to remain silent is interesting by itself already.

© Karlfried Knapp
Institut f. Anglistik/Amerikanistik
PH Erfurt
Nordhäuser Str. 63
99089 Erfurt

last update 11 March 1999
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