Culture Clash


Silence carries culturally
influenced meanings

'I hope people have more to say during the meeting to be held later today," Mark Tilden said to himself as he thought about ideas for improvements in the company where he worked. Mark had lived in Osaka, Japan, for a year. He worked as an editor and proofreader for a company that made parts for Japan's bullet trains. Some of the company's products were marketed in the United States and Australia, and Mark reviewed English language materials prepared for use in those countries.

At the meeting, most people contributed little. Most of the meeting consisted of short reports from various division managers and others remained silent, even when questions were invited. Toward the end of the meeting's scheduled time, Mark made a suggestion that the company analyze recent developments in Amtrak scheduling in the Western United States. The company vice president who was running the meeting then told Mark to prepare a report on Amtrak within two weeks. Mark felt unprepared to take on this task.

There are cultural differences concerning reactions to silence. In the United States, people become uncomfortable with too much silence and speak up to fill empty space. I remember guides for proper teenager behavior that I read as an adolescent. One of the lessons was that, prior to a social engagement, people should find out what others are interested in talking about so that there is not uncomfortable stillness.

In Japan, people are much more comfortable with silence and there is no pressure to speak up to fill a void. Japanese children learn the adage, "Chinnmoku wa kin, yuuben wa gin." This translates as "Speech is silver, silence is golden." Given that silence is acceptable, people are likely to speak only when they have something to say. In this example, the company vice president may have felt that Mark knew a great deal about Amtrak and had been thinking about his potential contribution for months. Consequently, the vice president may have felt that asking Mark for a report in two weeks was quite reasonable.

Children in the United States often hear the adage, "silence is golden." But the adage does not carry a strong lesson for everyday behavior as it does in Japan. In the United States, parents occasionally remind children of the adage when they are making too much noise. Or, adults sometimes use the adage in a sarcastic manner when someone is dominating a meeting in the workplace.

When working in the United States, Japanese nationals often must adjust to expectations of greater participation in meetings. Human resource specialists sometimes offer training sessions during which Japanese nationals can practice speaking up and making contributions. If they don't speak up, American executives may feel that the Japanese have not "done their homework" prior to workplace meetings.

The purpose of this column is to increase understanding of human behavior as it has an impact on the workplace. Special attention will be given to miscommunications caused by cultural differences. Each column will start with a short example of such confusion. Possible explanations will be offered to encourage thought about these issues.

Richard Brislin is a professor in the College of Business Administration,
University of Hawaii. He can be reached through the
College Relations Office:

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