Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

You are here

Reflection on Silence

han yu's picture

       “People in U.S. cultural contexts often evaluate those who are quick and effusive in their verbal responses more favorably than those who are quieter.” (Kim and Markus 189).

I choose this quote as the opening of my reflection on silence since this concept is so internalized by myself that it directly leads to my vacillation of whether to speak or not every time I am in a class here in America. I became aware of this value which encourages and praises frequent speaker since my very first experience within an American classroom in ESEM. Even though no one would criticize me of being silent, I was, I have been, and I am afraid of being deemed as someone who is idle, stubborn, or ignorant in class. I stress out every time when people around me are so engaged in a conversation but I feel nothing to share, when I always occupy myself in pondering on other people’s utterance for a long time, and when I have some ideas but difficult to form them into language (in English) that makes sense.

       Kim and Markus raise two models of speech. One is the American way of speech with the core of “self”, “individual”, and “contents”. The other is the East Asian way of speech with the core of “others”, “relations”, and “context”. In American culture, people focus on expressing themselves, their personal interests, goals and unique arguments. Dialogues always seem like debates where different opinions collide. An individual is considered wholesome only if this person is eloquently delineating one’s state of mind. And people seldomly devocalize themselves. However, in East Asian culture, when communicating, people put more emphasis on other people involved rather than themselves. They care more about the possible impact on their relationships and therefore hesitant to directly show their own attitudes. However, there are instances when one member of the discourse is not silenced. These instances usually appear in schools when teachers are lecturing, or at home when parents are giving directives to their children. As a student who used to be in typical Chinese classrooms for 12 years, I have been accustomed to a specific teaching style as Kim and Markus also depict for East Asian way of talking in education, “Class is intended to be a time and place to listen to what a teacher has to say, and good students are supposed to listen and absorb the essential knowledge” (189). By the influence of my culture, it has become part of me to always deliberate in advance of my utterance. What do people want to hear? What relationships are we having that may or may not need my views? Would others understand and accept what I want to talk about? Would other people judge me? Do I have the right or position to show my attitude toward an issue? Among these worries which would possibly be proved unnecessary afterwards, I am constantly silencing myself.

       With the above cultural differences interpreted by myself with the aid of Kim and Marcus’s investigation, I would also like to point out the pros and cons of both cultural ways of speech. I always embrace an idea that there is no absolute standard of being right or wrong in cultures, and there is no way for the world to achieve universality in cultural conducts, but people should genuinely acknowledge each other’s existence. In East Asian Culture, when people are too engaged in listening to others, it would decrease the possibility for them to become dissidents. Such as in a common classroom setting, most of the student’s time is spent on being absorbed in teachers’ lectures, therefore little time and space is left for critical thinking. There is a psychology term to generalize a kind of uncomfortable feeling called cognitive dissonance, which occurs when people encounter some ideas or situations which are contradicting to their existing beliefs; therefore people may alter their beliefs or behaviors in order to feel relieved, and they would even justify their logic of altering beliefs. For example, even though some people may start to feel skeptical about the lecturer, they would tend to accept some of the lecturer’s ideas if they have consumed a long time in the lecture. This is because disagreeing feels like devaluing their efforts in listening. The contradicting feeling may causes discomfort and results in some people’s silence. Lack of critical thinking is detrimental to people’s intelligence, opportunities to be enlightened, and overall impedes cultural development. However, there are still many East Asian students who have not recognized the latent hazard of keeping silent.

       On the other hand, American way of speech is not so perfect either. Although the straightforward style of talking is more effective in helping people to understand the speakers’ content immediately and therefore there is time and space left for critical thinking, many people would not always grasp the opportunity to learn from others. Being stubborn is part of our human nature. I doubt that there will be sufficient passion and vigor left for people to really extract and absorb others’ wonderful ideas, after they have been totally into expressing themselves. As far as what I have been perceiving, I tend to be more reluctant to genuinely appreciate other’s opinions once I have formed my own logic, let alone I have already expressed myself. It once again reminds me of the lyrics of a song, The Sound of Silence, by Paul Simon, “Ten thousand people, maybe more, people talking without speaking; People hearing without listening.” Are people really speaking when no one cares about their speech? Are people really listening when they only care about their own beliefs? They are talking, and they are hearing, but they are still silenced. 


Anne Dalke's picture

We reviewed citation form.

You developed aprofound contrast of decreased possibility of becoming dissidents in Eastern culture, vs. reluctance to appreciate other’s opinions once you had expressed yourself in the West.

You were worried that your conclusions were not objective enough, because only based on your experience.

You could read more about this, for example in Richard Nisbett's The Geography of Thought: /exchange/node/4331

Or you could interview other Asian and/or Asian Americans on campus about their experience in this realm.

What is your question? You are interested in cognitive dissonance (which you use in your own way here). You might be interested in learning more about Engaged Buddhism.

These are huge questions! You haven't written a conclusion paragraph...

You believe that there are cultural differences, no universals. So we need to recognize these.

How does this happen on campus? could you talk with Betty Litsinger? Bob Dostal? Steve Salkever? some of the professors in the East Asian Program about these matters?