“Awkward” silence proves advantageous: making the most of a pause



Column by Cassidy Herrington. E-mail [email protected]

Our generation is socially inept, particularly in handling a normal conversational device: the pause, better known as the “awkward” silence.

The signs of discontent with the pause are obvious: sweat stains, nervous fidgeting and uneasy glances. Even an eloquent speaker replaces the pause with flimsy filler words such as, “umm,” “so” and “yeah.” These are useless

and make an exchange more awkward.

The awkward silence is no stranger to conversation, but with the communication shift toward texting, e-mail and social networking, the silence is more apparent. Electronic communication is an easy way to avoid the pervading pause.

Through texting and e-mail, conversation is not in real-time, and the facial expressions are concealed.

Such dialogues are artificial — they lack the natural, unavoidable pause.

As a result, we do not know how to respond to a break in conversation. Awkward silence is misjudged and needs to be embraced as a natural element to a dialogue.

NBC news correspondent Bob Dotson addressed the awkward silence during a keynote speech for a convention of journalists in Sydney, Australia earlier this month.

“Silence makes most of us uncomfortable,” Dotson said. “But it can help you get a better story more quickly.”

Dotson cited an interview he conducted in the aftermath of a tornado. After a victim described the catastrophe, a silence ensued between Dotson and the tornado victim. The man bent over, and unearthed a “hunk of pink goo” from the rubble. This pink mass, the man’s dentures, produced the most memorable sound bite: “”Well, the tornado got my teeth, but it didn’t get me!”

Rather than stumble for the next question and avoid the pause, Dotson embraced the break and let the silence build a passionate response.

Dotson’s story is just one example proving that suppressed silence is an opportunity wasted.

This summer I interned for the World Affairs Council, an organization funded by the State Department. The WAC brings international leaders to the U.S. to learn about a topic relating to their field. In essence, these leaders build relationships between nations and increase understanding.

In June, a panel of Iraqi leaders spoke at an open discussion in the Louisville mayor’s office. After the Iraqis answered questions posed by the audience, the Iraqis extended questions to the audience.

Ahmed Mahmood Abdulmunen Abdulmunem, the mayor of the Hit district, was one of the first to speak. Hit is an area of concentrated fighting between U.S. forces and foreign insurgents. Consequently, Abdulmunem observed the brutality of the war in the proximity of his neighborhood. Upon visiting the U.S., Abdulmunem met a contradicting persona to his initial perception of Americans.

Abdulmunem stood and posed his question. The translator transmitted the words into the microphone, and the question still rings in my ears.

“Why?,” was his question. Over and over, Abdulmunem asked.

After experiencing hospitality and generosity during his visit to the U.S., he could not understand why there was so much violence, by the same people, in his country.

No one in the audience replied. Abdulmunem’s barrage of “why” became fervent pleas.

Finally, his last “why” echoed the auditorium, and a pause engulfed the room.

Nearly a minute went by. Finally, in response to this silence, a woman stood up to answer the Mayor Abdulmunem’s cry.

Her response could not have been more suitable.

“That day [the U.S. invasion of Iraq], we opened the newspapers and asked ourselves the same question,” she said.

“We don’t know why.”

Like a queue of dominoes, audience members stood up one by one and responded to the question, each response more eloquent than the previous.

In this situation, the “awkward” silence ignited a peaceful dialogue between two battling nations.

Contrary to its empty, unfilled connotation, silence is productive. Silence incites reflection and thorough response.

The “awkward” silence is misunderstood. Rather than dodge an uncomfortable pause, particularly with a stranger, embrace the silence.