The Meaning of Silence in Japan and Anglo-Culture

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2010

11 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Content

1. Introduction

2. The cross-cultural meanings of silence
2.1 The meaning of silence in Japanese culture
2.2 The meaning of silence in Anglo-culture

3. The intercultural role of silence

4. Conclusion

5. References

1. Introduction

People communicate by using their voice to express words, but they send messages without actually saying anything verbally as well. This nonverbal communication includes facial expressions, gestures, bodylanguage in general and also silence. The last one may sometimes be defined as simply the absence of verbal speech, thereby being understood as a passive act. However, one decides to remain silent for a reason and thus actively and consciously sends some kind of message. Therefore, silence can bear different types of meaning and have various functions, depending on the cultural background and context in which it occurs, the “speaker's” intention in keeping silent and the hearer's interpretation of this absence of words, or as Bonvillain (1993: 47) states, silence is “an act of non-verbal communication that transmits many kinds of meaning, depending on cultural norms of interpretation”. This definition also shows that although silence may be independent from the language system it occurs in - as it sounds the same in any language (Eades 2007: 285) -, it still can be a source for misunderstandings, -interpretations and problems in intercultural communication.

Therefore, this paper will focus on silence and in particular I will describe the culture specific use and meanings of silence in Japanese and in Anglo-cultures to bring out the cross-cultural differences in functions and understandings of this kind of nonverbal communication. The former cultural group has often been referred to as a part of the “'silent Asian' [culture]” (Nakane 2007: 1), while the later, the Western cultures, have been associated with “articulation and volubility” (ibid.). In how far these assumptions are correct or biased, and which motives cause Japanese to stay silent while speakers from an Anglican background prefer to speak will be discussed in this paper. Furthermore, the consequences for intercultural communication which occur because of different usage and intention of silence in these two cultures will be broached.

The studies I will mainly refer to in this paper are the book by Ikuko Nakane Silence in Intercultural Communication (2007), in which he explores silence in multicultural classrooms in Australia with Japanese participants and in Japan, interpreting the different uses drawing upon video and audio recordings, follow-up interviews and his own observation, Gail Jefferson's work on the “'standard maximum' silence” (1989), who timed silence between utterances to find out about the maximum to which silence is accepted in communication in Western cultures, Kurzon's (1995) article on silence, in which he distinguishes between intentional and unintentional silence and focuses on the interpretation of silence and Jandt's book on Intercultural Communication (2004), in which he devotes one chapter on nonverbal communication also considering silence and its functions in different cultures.

In the following I will firstly write about cross-cultural differences of the various kinds of meaning of silence by comparing its use and functions in Japanese culture and in Anglo-Culture, and secondly focus on the role of silence in intercultural communication, especially between the two cultures mentioned above. Lastly, I will state why it is important to know about the different meanings of silence in various cultures and briefly write about consequences of not knowing about these cultural differences.

2. The cross-cultural meanings of silence

Diane Eades states in her article Understanding Aboriginal silence in legal contexts correctly that „[s]ilence sounds the same in any dialect (or language), but it does not always carry the same meaning“ (2007: 285), and thereby authorises the research on silence in different cultures. Although we might not directly realise it in everyday talk, people use silence to express “agreement, apathy, awe, confusion, contemplation, disagreement, embarrassment, obligation, regret, repressed hostility, respect sadness, thoughtfulness, or any number of meanings” (Jandt 2004: 116). However, these functions of silence are not equally shared and valued in every culture, but interpreted and assessed according to individual background and cultural context.

Jandt furthermore writes that “Eastern societies such as India, China, and Japan have valued silence more than western societies” (2004: 116), because the later define it as a “sign of interpersonal sensitivity, mutual respect, personal dignity, affirmation, and wisdom” (ibid.), while he claims that Western societies like the US interpret silence as a “lack of attention and […] initiative” (ibid.). In the following, I will focus on these statements, examining these stereotypes of the “'Silent East'” and the “'Eloquent West'” (Nakane 2007: 2) by looking at the meanings of silence in Japan and Anglo-culture.

2.1 The meaning of silence in Japanese culture

Besides studying the behaviour of Japanese students in Australian classrooms, Nakane also devotes a whole chapter on his studies of silence in all Japanese high school classrooms from 1999 and 2001, to form a basis for a comparison of the behaviour of Japanese students in a native in contrast to a non-native surrounding with special focus on “classroom communication styles” (2007: 41). For this he observed 10 sessions in different subjects on a public and a private high school. 4 of these sessions were audio- and video-taped, the others were recorded via field-notes, while estimating the lengths of significant pauses. Considering the time of observation and the inaccuracy of the measuring of some of the silences this study is not highly representative and exact. However, Nakane's study is only concerned with Japanese silence in Japanese classrooms, while previous studies often exclusively looked at silence of Asian students in multicultural classrooms, which might take on different forms than the silence in native contexts, and therefore is so far the best description of the usage and the functions of silence in Japanese culture.

Based on these observations, Nakane firstly states that in Japanese classrooms the written form of communication is generally preferred, with the teacher using the board extensively so the students can copy rather than take notes from what he/she is orally telling them (Nakane 2007: 43).


Excerpt out of 11 pages


The Meaning of Silence in Japan and Anglo-Culture
University of Trier
Intercultural Communication
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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480 KB
Japan, Anglo, Silence, intercultural communication
Quote paper
Sophia Gundlach (Author), 2010, The Meaning of Silence in Japan and Anglo-Culture, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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