Silence: Is Face Saved or Lost – an Cultural Study of Politeness
Abstract The present paper focuses on silence; it is mainly dedicated to theory exploration. It firstly reviews major views of the notion of silence, namely its various norms and functions. Then it illustrates silence with examples as a polite means during conversations. Finally it summarizes that silence, as a nonverbal language, bears as many functions as speech, and sometimes it may bring about special results.
When communication comes into question, in its broadest sense, two aspects catch most researchers’ eyes—speech and silence. Speech is a quite familiar subject, as when referred, communication is often specified on speech, while silence is more often than not a phenomenon which is out of awareness. As regards its strategies, communication can roughly fall into two parts—directness and indirectness, that is, the speaker can express something directly or indirectly.
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And to communicate successfully, we depend on both of the strategies and both of the tools, i. e. speech and silence. 2. Silence and Politeness 1. The Notion of Silence Silence has traditionally been regarded as delimiting the beginning and end of utterances, or taken simply for inaction in communicative settings, or as most researchers have defined, treated as merely background. As a matter of fact, silence plays a central importance in communicative settings.
The appropriate understanding of the notion of silence can be achieved by the understanding of its various forms and functions. 2. 1. 1 Its Various Forms Silence takes various forms. The smallest unit of silence is the normally unnoticed cessation of sound in the production of consonants, which creates the pattern of consonants and vowels that makes “speech” of a vocal stream. Pausing follows and sometimes is perceived as hesitation and sometimes not perceived at all, within the stream of speech making up a speaker’s turn, and between speaker turns.
The next level of silence includes pauses that are perceived in interaction such as lulls in conversation. Longer than this is the complete silence of one party to a conversation. The broadest level of silence is that which provides the structure and background against which talk is marked and meaningful merely by virtue of its occurrence. (Tannen and Saville-Troike, 1985). 2. 1. 2 Its Functions Owing to varying levels, silence bears a range of functions.
At one pole are the functions of pausing in cognitive processes, impression formation, and as part of communicative style partly responsible for cultural stereotyping. At the other pole are the functions of silence as the background against which talk has meaning, or as the nonverbal activity which structures interaction. This article mainly focus on silence itself as a communicative device in interaction; either obstructer or facilitator of divine inspiration, and a means of emotion management and display.
Many researchers have discussed certain functions of silence: Bruneau (1973) has dealt with “interactive silences”, which include a broad array of functions, from defining the role of auditor in a communicative exchange, to providing social control, to demonstrating difference, to indicating emotional closeness, to managing personal interaction; Jensen (1973) has also categorizing its various functions as linkage, affection, revelation, judgment, and activation. 2. Silence and Politeness Silence, to some extent, is the extreme manifestation of indirectness.
If indirectness is a matter of saying one thing and meaning another, silence can be a matter of saying nothing and meaning something. 1. Face-Saving View and Politeness In communication, people often mind their face, or to say, maintain their personal image. In their face-saving view, Brown and Levinson (1978) categorize face into “positive face” and “negative face”, define negative face (NF) as “basic claim to territories, personal preserves, rights to non-distraction—i. e. freedom of action and freedom from imposition”.
Positive face (PF) refers to “the positive self-image that people have and want to be appreciated and approved of by at least some people”. The two complementary sides of face have been referred to as “distance vs. involvement”, “deference vs. solidarity”, and “autonomy vs. connectional face”. Politeness is activity serving to enhance, maintain or protect face. It consists in people’s rational interaction, preserving both sides of face for each other in intrinsically face-threatening acts (FTAs) by exercising various strategies. 2.
Silence as a Polite Means As the extreme manifestation of indirectness, silence has two conflicting yet simultaneous views of silence: one positive, and one negative. The positive and negative valuation of silence is a facet of the inherent ambiguity of silence as a symbol. The ambiguity of silence can be seen to arise either from what is assumed to be evidenced or from what is assumed to be omitted. So silence is probably the most ambiguous of all linguistic forms. 2. 2. 2. 1 The Role in Communication Silence does both good and bad in communication.
On the one hand, it is useful when one wants to be indirect or to be polite by leaving options. Silence gives the hearer time to think of a response to what has been said before, and it can be used as a conflict—avoidance strategy. It is easier to undo silence than it is to undo words. For example: A: We’ve received word that four Tanzanian acquaintances from out of town will be arriving tomorrow. But, with our large family, we have no room to accommodate them. (Implied request: “Would you help us out? )
B: [Silence; not accompanied by any distinctive gesture or facial expression] (Denial: “I don’t want to” or “I don’t have any room either”) A: What do you think? B: Yes, that is a problem. Were you able to finish that report we were working on this morning? The negative response in the cultural milieu in which this took place violated A’s expectation that guests would be welcomed, and frustrated his goal in initiating the conversation (Tannen and Saville-Troike, 1985). Another example follows: A: Please marry me. B: [Silence; head and eyes lowered] (Acceptance)
The exchange occurred between Japanese speakers. For the girl (B) to say anything would have been considered very inappropriate in this very emotional situation (Tannen and Saville-Troike, 1985). If it had occurred between Igbo speakers, silence would be interpreted as denial if she continued to stand there and as acceptance if she ran away. A: Are you still mad at me? B: [Silence] (Affirmative) It is noteworthy that the silence here conveys a message precisely because it forms part of an interactional communicative structure.
It does not deny or terminate the interaction which would require some other act, and so cooperatively invites interpretation. In each of these exchanges, speaker B selected silence from the possible repertoire of response forms available to convey his or her intended meaning. In a word, silence can be the positive means to prevent from employing some determinate expression, considering the place of silence in relation to other communicative structures. On the other hand, one’s failure to say something that is expected in a given moment by the other party can be interpreted as a sign of hostility or dumbness. .
2. 2. 2 Silence, Face-Saving View and Politeness Silence is seen as positive when taken as evidence of the existence of something positive underlying—for example, proper respect; the silence of the telephone when it represents solitude for creative work; the silence of, as the phrase expresses, “sweet silent thought”; and the silence of perfect rapport between intimates who do not have to exchange words. But silence is also seen as positive if assumed to represent the omission of something negative—“If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything”.
Silence becomes a bad thing if it seems to represent the existence of something negative—the silence of seething anger. But it is also negatively valued if it is assumed to represent the omission of something positive—the silence of the telephone when you are anxiously awaiting a particular telephone call; the omission of a greeting which constitutes being snubbed; inaction because appropriate action is not being taken. Hence, silence can be valued to have two benefits in rapport and defensiveness (Tannen and Saville-Troike, 1985).
The rapport benefit comes from being understood without putting one’s meaning on record, so that understanding is seen not as the result of putting meaning into words—which presumably could be achieved with any two people who speak the same language—but rather as the greater understanding of shared perspective, experience and intimacy, the deeper sense of speaking the same language. This is the positive value of silence stemming from the existence of something positive underlying.
The defensive value of silence comes from omitting to say something negative—not confronting potentially divisive information, or being able later to deny having meant what may not be received well. These two benefits can also be interpreted as connection and independence, the two overriding goals of human communication. The two goals can be referred to as the needs for deference or distance on the one hand and camaraderie on the other; or as positive face—the need to be approved of by others, and negative face—the need not to be imposed on by others.
Ways of serving these needs, then, are positive and negative politeness. As is known, negative and positive politeness results from the paradoxical nature of interpersonal rapport. Connection is to be sought, because people need to be involved with others. But it is also to be avoided, as a threat to the integrity of the individual. The two benefits of silence determine that silence has a positive value as a way of serving negative politeness—not imposing on others. But silence can also have a negative value when it is seen as the failure of positive politeness—the need to be involved with others.
Nonetheless silence can be seen as positive or negative by members of any culture, as it is measured against what is expected in that context. Then it may be interpreted as the observance of positive face or the observance of negative face. 3. Summary When speech is interpreted, it is not merely accounting for what can be said, but what can be said when, where, by whom, to whom, in what manner, and in what particular circumstances. It follows naturally that this line of inquiry must consider also who may not speak about what and in what situations, as well.
Silence, as a nonverbal language, bears as many functions as speech, and sometimes it may bring about special results. It is not as simple as most people think. In different contexts, it can be interpreted as different meanings. Pragmatically speaking, this paper simply touches the notion of silence, and relates it with face-saving view and politeness. Silence may convey many underlying meanings in communicative settings. People resort to silence from the possible repertoire of response forms available to convey his or her intended meaning in order not to threaten others’ face for polite reason.