Let the Awkward Pause Be Awkward

Silence can be a valuable tool for changing who gets heard

Man listening thoughtfully to business colleague in restaurant.

Every time I fill the gap between two thoughts with a drawn-out, “Ummm,” I hear a phantom BANG in the back of my mind.

Turns out my old high-school teacher, Mrs. O’Keefe, knew what she was doing. Determined to rid her students of our dependence on hesitation markers — like “um,” “uh,” “like,” and “y’know” — she’d slam her hand down on the nearest desk every time she heard one.

Get comfortable with silence, she’d say. Use it to prepare. Or even better, as a way of letting someone else talk.

Today, managers are told to allow pauses in brainstorms and team meetings. It allows space for those who might be shy to speak up to get a word in and makes for more productive discussion. It’s a lesson that’s feeling especially resonant right now, as constant Zooms are forcing us to adjust to a rhythm of conversation that’s different from what we’re used to.

And as we look for new ways to change unjust systems and make space for marginalized voices, the pause is more valuable than ever. For people who struggle to be heard, a beat of silence can make all the difference.

But it’s probably going to be awkward. Different languages have varying rhythms, but research has shown that among English speakers, it only takes four seconds for a lull in conversation to feel unsettling.

Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, says silences bother us because they seem to break the unwritten rules of communication. Subconsciously, we see silence as “a signal that there’s something wrong,” she says. “With the conversation, with you, with the other person, with your relationship. You expect the gears to be steadily turning, and when they stop, it’s a glitch in the system.”

We’re so uncomfortable with the awkward pause, in fact, that forcing it on someone else can be a way to gain ground in negotiations. For example, in her book Cringeworthy: A Theory of Awkwardness, Melissa Dahl suggests using silence to your advantage after a salary offer: Tell the hiring manager something like, “I’m a little surprised; I expected the salary to be about $10,000 higher,” then sit quietly and wait. After a few seconds, the other person may cede some ground as a way of breaking the silence.

Such is the power of the awkward pause: When we’re staring down a conversational void, we’ll fill it with things we might not otherwise say just to make it disappear.

But according to psychologist Ho Kwan Cheung, when the same voices disproportionately fill the silence — in the workplace, usually the voices of White men — it creates a self-sustaining pattern of conversational dominance. “We associate authority and credibility with those people,” she says, which in turn chips away at the authority and credibility of employees who speak up less, usually of women and non-White people.

“Research has shown that women, when they do speak up, are interrupted way more often than men,” says Cheung, a professor at SUNY Albany who studies the experiences of women in the workplace. “It’s especially true for women of color, who have to deal with a double whammy.”

This is how marginalized voices stay marginalized, says Cheung, whether it’s in the classroom or the boardroom. “If you keep silencing a student, eventually they’ll think, ‘what I say doesn’t matter.’ The same concept applies at work. When you get belittled or interrupted or you feel diminished or you’re not listened to, especially if that’s happening repeatedly, you’re going to just stop talking.”

To make that stop happening, we have to turn those old patterns of conversation upside down — and that means normalizing the awkward pause.

First, says Tannen, recognize that conversational styles vary, and what you feel is enough time to let someone else jump in with a thought or idea might not be long enough at all.

“If you’re talking more than you want to, just stop,” she says. “Count to seven. Wait a longer time than feels comfortable and see if the other person starts talking.”

Even a hesitation marker can stifle and dominate. A pause can allow new ideas in. A gap that feels awkward to you will likely feel comfortable, welcoming, and generous to others.

And crucially deferential. “A big part is acknowledging that you don’t know everything, and deferring authority to someone else,” Cheung says. “That there’s a side of the story you haven’t seen, and you need to hear from someone who has.” An intentional pause is a powerful message.

Kate is a freelance journalist who’s been published by Popular Science, The New York Times, USA Today, and many more. Read more at bykatemorgan.com.

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