UK: SOMETIMES IT IS RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT. - It's often assumed that the more you talk the better you communicate - though this is perhaps less true of the British than of the French, Italians and Americans. Yet anyone who has done business in countries

Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

It's often assumed that the more you talk the better you communicate - though this is perhaps less true of the British than of the French, Italians and Americans. Yet anyone who has done business in countries where words are used sparingly will appreciate that silence can be used to just as good effect. In Asia - and especially Japan - the protracted pause is often as eloquent as speech. In Europe, the Swedes and Finns can be similarly mute - the latter, in particular, excel at it.

The reason is perhaps partly geographic. Sandwiched for centuries between Swedish and Russian bosses in a cold climate, the Finn had little incentive to open his mouth unless he was asked. Not only was it prudent to remain quiet but it suited his view of society. 'Those who know, do not speak; those who speak, do not know' is an ancient Chinese proverb to which the Finns, like the Japanese, adhere. Silence is not seen as a failure to communicate but as an integral part of interaction; what is not said is important. Silence means that you listen and learn; verbosity merely expresses cleverness, egoism and arrogance. Silence also protects privacy and shows respect for others. In Finland and Japan it is considered impolite to force one's opinions on others.

In the Anglo-Saxon world and Latin and Middle Eastern countries, talking has another function. The British habit of discussing the weather with neighbours or even strangers shows both a preoccupation with climate and a desire to show solidarity and friendliness. Sociable discourse is even more evident in the US, Canada and Australia, where speech is a vital tool for establishing a relationship rapidly. In France, fluency is an important social attribute; to the Finn, the Frenchman may seem to babble - or be pushy and intruding - but to compatriots he appears intelligent and coherent. The American habit of 'thinking aloud', the French stage performance, the Italian baring of the soul, Arab rhetoric - all are attempts to gain the confidence of the listener and share ideas which can then be discussed and modified. The Finns and the Japanese, meanwhile, listen to such outpourings with a kind of horror: in their countries a statement is a commitment to stand by, not to change, twist or contradict in the very next breath.

It is a view of language that sets Finland and Japan apart. In both countries the whispers are the same: 'Foreigners talk so fast; we are slow by comparison; we can't learn languages; our pronunciation is terrible; our own language is so difficult; foreigners are more experienced than us; they are cleverer and often deceive; they don't mean what they say'; hence, 'we can't rely on them.'

In Japan what is actually said has no significance whatsoever. Language is used as a tool of communication, but the words and sentences themselves give no indication of what the speaker is saying. What they want and how they feel is conveyed by the way in which they address their conversation partner: smiles, pauses, sighs, grunts, nods and eye movements convey everything. The Japanese executive leaves his fellow Japanese knowing perfectly well what has been agreed, no matter what was said. The foreigner leaves the Japanese with a completely different idea. If he thinks all has gone well it is often only because the Japanese would never offend him by saying anything negative or unpleasant.

Of course, in negotiation, the protracted pause can trap the unwary - particularly the bewildered and easily embarrassed Briton who, having had his initial offer met with silence, rushes in to fill it. 'The Japanese stared at his feet for five minutes and I could feel my opportunity slipping away,' recalls one visitor. 'I came down another 3% and got the order.'

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