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Unspoken Communication: Silence versus Words

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Communication is vital for everyday interactions—words are exchanged between others and body language and hand movements are in motion. However, what if a form of communication means respecting silence? Barbara Rogoff, author of The Cultural Nature of Human Development, focuses on three distinct cultures that either value silence (Japanese and Inuit) or questioning and participation (United States) in the classroom. Both approaches influence the outcome of one’s leadership, beginning in the classroom and later taking shape at the workplace. At a young age, we heighten our communication skills at school: we engage in group projects, we make friends in and outside of our selected classes, teachers encourage us to critically think and make our own decisions. When we examine communication in a cultural standpoint, we take into account what deems as significant to other cultures. Growing up in the United States, I’ve been taught to question everything and sometimes do feel awkward in times of silence.

An interesting connection to make between American culture and its uncomfortable feelings towards silence may be due to our individualistic ways: in order to succeed in life, we must ask questions in order to promote learning and knowledge, which therefore, puts us one step above the rest. Furthermore, western schooling appreciates participation and asking questions because it shows we are actively engaged in the subject and want to learn. We enjoy asking questions for the purpose of teaching others because it, subconsciously or not, puts us in a leadership position. We feel confident and have a sense of belonging—other aspects we as Americans hope to strive. This is the norm for our culture; we love competition and being the best at everything. Our school systems have taught us we need to surpass and excel our peers in mostly anything to succeed—whether it’s in academics, sports, music, arts, etc. Because we are ingrained in this cultural belief, how we learn in the classroom correlates with how we are as leaders in the workplace. Teachers use a more authoritarian style when teaching: they are at the front of the classroom, instructing the students; they make the decisions as to what to teach and what to do, but still encourage their students to think analytically. There is a definite hierarchy structure—the teacher being the most powerful and placed front and center in a classroom. We can see this hierarchy structure in companies: the CEO and executive management being place on top of the organizational chart and controlling the overall outcome of the business. Their employees look up to them to make decisions and them, being leaders encourage their employees to ask questions.

In retrospect, the Inuit community believes children gain wisdom and experience through observation; as they grow older, questions simply become a mundane habit. Like the Inuit community, the Japanese culture also finds speaking and asking questions to be a sign of immaturity. The Japanese community highly values listening and feels children grow from actively listening to others, rather than blatantly stating their opinions; they value silence because it allows them to respond with more thoughtful and meaningful answers. Japanese teachers take a more permissive approach when teaching—the students are the teachers, and the teacher sits silently observing the class.  This form of teaching promotes a sense of inferiority and equality between students and teacher. This allows for the students to feel more comfortable and enables them to actually want to participate, perhaps insinuating a collaborative leadership style in the workplace. In respect to both forms of communication, one approach is not better than the other in regards to leadership outcome—appreciation and mutual acceptance for what is outside of one’s norm needs to be taken into account. With that said, which style promotes engagement in learning in your eyes— taking control and asking questions or observing and listening?

 


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