Senses and meanings: Before and after the word ... silence


In principle a physical fact related to the absence of sounds audible to the human ear, silence is also an element involved in communication even though it is not, strictly speaking, a linguistic sign. Occurring together with other non-verbal elements of communication, silence is capable of conveying information and acquiring meaning. But the interpretation given to the values and meanings involved in the act of silence, silence in verbal interaction, is always determined by the cultural context.

Silence has been a characteristically interdisciplinary subject of study, so it can be -and has been- approached from different areas of study, such as linguistics, psychology, philosophy, theology, metaphysics, semiotics, or communication, among others. A general perspective from which to study silence is to conceive it as a cultural element, as a phenomenon that is related to cultural expressions.

For example, the role it plays within religion, mysticism, and spirituality, or also in art, politics, law, and ethics, and even the role it plays around death. In this way, various manifestations of silence can be observed: when it serves as a vehicle for reflection and spiritual interiorization; as a vow professed by some religious congregations; in the role, it plays in music or literature; or silence as a means of repression, protest or lack of citizen participation in politics, among many others.

Silence can be considered an object of research as long as it is framed in a specific communication context and under the focus of a specific discipline. As mentioned at the beginning, many areas of research have contributed to the study of silence from their very particular approaches and objects of study, but it is silence in communication that we will talk about here. If human beings communicate mainly by speaking, and the dictionary defines silence as an abstention from speaking, can we communicate things through silence?

Traditional communication theory has tended to look at silence as absence, and therefore, as an element incapable of communicating. However, this perspective has changed, and in more recent studies it has been possible to consider silence as an element that can communicate as much as words. For more than forty years there have been several investigations on silence as an important part of human communication, treating it as an object of study in its own right.

Authors such as Dennis Kurzon (1998, 2007), Robert Johannesen (1974), Dieter Rall (1992), and Deborah Tannen (1985), among others, have studied the role of silence in communication and pragmatics. Today we know that silence is an element capable of communicating as much as words, but how can it transmit information?

The pragmatics of silence

Pragmatics is the study of language in use, which means that it tries to explain how linguistic expressions, i.e. the words we exchange, relate to the contexts or situations in which they are presented to convey information in communicative exchanges. Noveck and Sperber (2004) make a distinction between sentence and enunciation, and in this regard mention that a sentence is an abstract object with sound (phonological), syntactic (syntactic), and meaning (semantic) properties, assigned by the grammar of the language. Thus, linguistics focuses on the study of sentences and their grammatical properties.

Meanwhile, an enunciation is a concrete object with a defined space and time. Enunciation is the realization of a sentence and responds to the grammatical properties of that sentence (or not, since it may present certain violations, for example, being mispronounced) in a given situation. Likewise, an enunciation has other properties that are related to the context in which it is made. In everyday verbal communication, both linguistic and non-linguistic properties are present and influence the interpretation of communicative messages. Pragmatic theories attempt to explain the role played by these properties and the ways in which they interact with each other.

Although silence is not a linguistic unit that encodes semantic information as words do (for example, the word "tree" has a referent in the world that is easy to recognize conceptually), it can be interpreted from other inferential procedures and thus obtain its significance. The act of being silent in itself has the potential to communicate attitudes, emotions, or different mental states when accompanied by other factors in a context and thus be interpreted by the observer, who endows it with significance.

Within an oral interaction, a silence offers the possibility of being interpreted in many different ways. The studies that place silence as a sign of communication are closely linked to the so-called nonverbal communication. Silence can occur with other nonverbal elements of communication, for example, when someone raises his or her eyebrows without saying anything after having heard a proposal or opinion, this can be as communicative as saying verbally: "I have my doubts". In other words, silence as a unit of communication is located within a context loaded with gestural elements (kinesic) as well as the use and perception of physical space (proxemic).

It is also worth mentioning that the interpretation given to this type of silence is always determined or permeated by cultural aspects. Being a cultural element, silence, understood as a component of verbal communication, will be treated differently in each culturally differentiated area of the planet. For example, in the East, silence has an apparently positive significance, related to respect and wisdom, while in the West, on the contrary, words are given greater value than silence in the act of communicating, and even silence often has a negative connotation. 

Therefore, in any act of communication in which silence is present, it is important for its study to frame it in a specific cultural context in order to determine the ways in which it can be interpreted. "Each society, each culture, each historical moment, sets its rules, its content, its meaning. Consequently, silence is subject to social, cultural and historical determinations."

Voluntarily opting for silence can generate a message in the communicative interaction.

Different typologies of silence have been attempted to classify the communicative and sometimes almost semantic scopes of silence. Authors such as Johannesen have suggested that silence possesses a polysemic characteristic, i.e., that multiple and very varied interpretations can be conferred on a speaker's intentional silence. This author lists twenty possible meanings of silence, ranging from empathy or uncertainty to total disagreement.

Other observational studies gave way to different classifications of silence. Berger first conducted a study in which he asked students what was the last moment of silence they remembered, either as speakers or as interlocutors, and asked them to explain the context in which the silence occurred. The results showed that the main causes of silence were:

Unexpected information or avoidant behavior.

Stress or intense emotions.

Lack of information or ignorance of the topic of conversation.

This typology is based on causal aspects of silence, rather than on the intentions of the speaker or the inferences of the listener.

For his part, Kurzon (1998) focused his attention on the silent response to a question, and on the circumstances in which silence can be meaningful in an interaction. The factors involved in such meaningfulness are the number of participants in the interaction, the text that is not uttered and is replaced by the silence (i.e., the absent information whether known or unknown), and the intentional or unintentional character of the silence.

We must take into account that there are silences that are more intentional than others so that rather than constituting a linguistic sign with varied meanings, it could be considered that silence may represent a reflection of the mental state of the speaker. That is, it has nothing encoded per se, but is part of the attitude of the individual who is silent and who, intentionally or not, expresses that attitude through silence.

The case of silence illustrates extensively the proposition that communication is not reduced to the exchange of semantic content by means of a linguistic code, but that stimuli with implicit content are intentionally emitted to communicate something to the listener, who will derive meaning through an inferential process. If a stimulus is intentional and ostensive, the listener will attach meaning to it, even though it is not semantically encoded.

Under a pragmatic perspective, an ostensive behavior or an ostensive stimulus refers to the fact of making manifest the intention to make something mutually manifest, for example, pointing something out to someone is an act of ostension; raising the empty glass and showing it to the host of a meeting would also be an ostensive stimulus that will communicate the message that we wish to be served more wine. The so-called relevance theory explains communication by means of ostensive stimuli that listeners will find relevant in any interaction to derive communicative messages.

Silence and other nonverbal behaviors contribute to transmitting overt, covert or accidental information.

All ostensive behavior provides evidence of thoughts and can be successful because it implies a guarantee of relevance; this occurs because humans automatically focus our attention on the stimuli that seem most relevant to us. Thus, silence can constitute part of a complex ostensive stimulus in which other verbal and extralinguistic elements (kinesics, proxemics, text, subtext, etc.) can intervene.

We can speak of two modes of communication, a coded one and an inferential ostensive one that is not necessarily verbal. Silence, under this perspective, can constitute a kind of nonverbal ostensive communication that attracts the attention of the interlocutor and leads him/her to interpret such silence based on the context of enunciation and the cognitive environments of both participants. That is, when silence occurs in an interaction, listeners, if they consider it relevant, will relate the stimulus to the context and derive messages or implicatures from it.

Escandell (2006) mentions that the very act of breaking silence and speaking is the result of a decision, of a choice between speaking and not speaking. That is to say, not speaking can also have an intention and therefore generate an interpretation. If silence is issued as a conscious and voluntary decision (when one has had the option of speaking or not speaking), it acquires a communicative value, since it serves as a stimulus to be interpreted. The subject reflects an attitude through his/her silence, and the listener infers this attitude through a process of less effort and greater cognitive effect, i.e., he/she will confer the most relevant or accessible meaning according to the enunciative environment.

In the code model of communication, extralinguistic factors, such as silence, are not contemplated to explain the communicative processes of human beings; they are simply conceived as tasks of encoding and decoding semantic elements exchanged by speakers. This model has been left behind to give way to new theories, such as relevance theory, where the focus of communication is on the recognition of relevant stimuli to derive meaning. In other words, in the light of this theory, silence is one of the many evidences or clues that modify the interlocutor's interpretation of the communicative exchange.

The theory of relevance takes into account the intentionality of the speaker to convey meaning; communication can occur through stimuli that are processed together with the context to derive implicatures based on relevance. Thus, it is explained that there is no biunivocal correspondence between language and communication. That is to say, language is not the only means of human communication. Silence can be as communicative a stimulus as explicit verbal interaction. In this sense, two kinds of communicative processes are present in human communication: that of encoding and decoding of explicatures and that of ostension and inference.

Communication is always permeated by a variety of extralinguistic elements such as facial, body, and prosodic gestures, among others. Silence is one of these elements, which, when surrounded by different contextual marks, can refer to our mental state and be interpreted in different ways. Although silence permeates interpretation, it often remains consciously unnoticed, i.e., listeners may not be aware of its presence in an exchange.

At other times it may be intentionally uttered and also generate an interpretation by being the only response to a request. Nonverbal behaviors, such as silence, can contribute to both overt communication and covert or accidental forms of information transmission. Speaking of nonverbal behaviors, Wharton (2009) states that "they often show us more about a person's state of mind than the words that accompany them; sometimes they replace words rather than just accompany them".

By Gala Karina Villaseñor García, Source: