Silence as a bargaining tactic at the PTA

Below is posted a Daily Yomiuri article that comes a couple of years too late for me. It touches upon the use of silence or “non-talk” or taciturnity at Japanese group meetings to force a certain desired outcome. 

A year ago, I attended my first PTA conference of the school year (at a new school, we’d just moved from another city) and the use of such a silence from the entire group of parents – by the yakuin class leader – was just-so used to co-erce me into undertaking the running of the Bazaar for the class for the whole year. This was despite all my protesting that I was new at the school, wasn’t fluent in Japanese and had never seen the event of the bazaar activity (called Fureai-matsuri) at the school before.

So, I would say the unwittingly clueless non-Japanese-parents who attend PTAs will do well to be warned!

Cultural Conundrums / Silence sometimes speaks volumes

Several years ago a friend I’ll call Alicia ruefully informed me that she had volunteered to be the head parent in her daughter’s first-grade class. I was surprised, because Alicia already had quite a lot on her plate with work and family demands. “I couldn’t help it!” Alicia exclaimed. “No one wanted to do it. So we sat. And sat. And sat. In complete silence. It was excruciating.” She shuddered at the memory and seemed resigned to the price she had had to pay to end the wordless ordeal.

Protracted sessions of tight-lipped taciturnity at the first PTA meeting of every school year are notorious in many schools where no enthusiastic parent agrees readily to take on the often arduous duties of liaison and organizer. No one enjoys these mute marathons, but many Western mothers and fathers find them particularly grueling.

English synonyms for silence include tranquillity, quietude, stillness, peace and calm. And yet the experience of unspeaking togetherness can be disturbingly tense and anxiety-provoking, especially for those with little practice in the art of unspeaking parley. It would have been one thing if the parents at Alicia’s meeting had simply been sitting in silence as they waited for things to get under way, but prolonged non-talk in the middle of the communicative event was as piercingly painful as fingernails raked down a blackboard.

Cross-cultural negotiation researcher John Graham has examined the ways that business agreements are brokered in 10 countries based on observations of actual meetings, role-playing and interviews. The verbal bargaining behavior of Americans and Japanese was quite similar. Self-disclosure, commitment and questions formed the core of the negotiations.

On the other hand, the nonverbal behavior was rather different. The U.S. businesspeople spent an average of 10 minutes looking at their counterparts per 30 minutes of bargaining, whereas the Japanese negotiators spent only an average of 3.9 minutes gazing at their opponents.

The number of conversational gaps of 10 seconds or longer was greater for the Japanese than the Americans, but not by a very large amount. There were an average of 1.7 such gaps per 30 minutes for the Americans, compared to 2.5 for the Japanese. However, Graham notes that the length of gaps was often longer among the Japanese participants, with one pause lasting 40 seconds, while no silent periods of 25 seconds or more occurred in the American negotiations.

Moreover, based on participants’ listening to playbacks of negotiations and their explanations regarding the interactional dynamics, it appears that the Japanese created lulls deliberately as a forceful and compelling tactic, but the Americans often fell into silence without conscious intent, and their failure to speak up quickly was frequently perceived as a weakness.

There may be eloquent silence in American communication, but non-talk is more often viewed as an absence or lack, as in the phrases “at a loss for words” or “speechless.” However, for Japanese negotiators, silence was a powerful weapon in the bargaining arsenal.

Another communication researcher, Wong Ngan Ling, conducted a survey related to the use of silence among Japanese and British people. Nineteen percent of the British respondents reported that they used silence “often” or “very often,” compared with 81 percent of Japanese respondents who replied in this way.

When asked about the traditional English and Japanese saying “Silence is golden,” 40 percent of the Japanese agreed with the sentiment, while only 20 percent of the British did. Conversely, 43 percent of the British chose “Speech is golden” but only 20 percent of the Japanese concurred with this modified assertion.

Many respondents in both groups seemed to believe in the ongoing validity of the original adage, but more Japanese found it remained relevant. Only 10 percent of the Japanese went along with the statement that “Silence is golden” was traditionally true but less applicable today. On the other hand, nearly twice as many British respondents (18 percent) agreed with the notion that silence was less “golden” in contemporary society.

The respondents further noted various positive and negative functions of silence. Both groups of survey participants noted that silence could be used as a form of respect, a way to indirectly show disagreement or a lack of enthusiasm, an indication of listening carefully, particularly in formal situations, or as a means to save face when, for example, feeling out of one’s depth.

However, the Japanese additionally observed that silence might be employed to persuade someone to change his or her mind or to show that the person refraining from comment wishes to be called on to speak. Some Japanese also mentioned that they used silence especially in informal situations because they felt words might spoil the atmosphere.

With silence serving so many differing purposes, it is hard for those with little knack for non-talk to interpret what is going on and how to respond. I don’t even want to contemplate how many ambience-ruining utterances I may have been responsible for in my early years in Japan. I am sure I must have sometimes interjected cheerful observations into what were for the others in my party companionable silences but which to me appeared awkward pauses in need of my, ahem, skillful conversational contribution.

And, like Alicia, I have on occasion succumbed in desperation to demands made upon me as the clock ticked through intolerable periods of wordless beseeching. I particularly remember once being visited in my office by an unprepossessing young man I’ll call Mr. Mori. He worked for a publisher and he wanted me to work on a project I wasn’t much interested in, with a deadline that was well-nigh impossible to meet without severely cutting into my already short hours of sleep. I politely cut him off in mid-request, which I began to regret keenly in the following minutes of non-talk after I adeptly explained that I was unable to undertake the proposed work. Suffice it to say that in the end Mr. Mori scooted out of my office with a smug smile on his face as I slumped back in my chair, drained and astonished that I had so underestimated the man I was up against. He did not have the gift of gab, but he most certainly had the gift of non-gab, which in that instance had proved the more vital skill.

So which is golden, silence or speech? Given all the complexities of intercultural communication on that issue I feel I must remain silent


Elwood is an associate professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce. She is the author of “Getting Along with the Japanese” (Ask, 2001).

(Mar. 17, 2009)

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