On the value of silence for different cultures

After having lived abroad for 3 years, always sharing a house with different people from different cultures, I started noticing some different patterns in behaviour. And that’s quite obvious, you’ll tell me. But there’s something that often go unnoticed: I am talking about the cultural rules regulating conversations.

Right now I am living in Leeds (UK), sharing a wonderful house with an Austrian, a Dutch, a German and another Italian. For me, it’s a great way to observe and try to figure out other ways of thinking and constantly training my skills of intercultural communication.

The other night, I was sitting in the living room having dinner with my Austrian housemate. He perfectly speaks Italian too, so we were talking in Italian. At a certain point, the topic came up: sometimes he was a bit baffled by our Dutch housemate’s behaviour in conversations.

He felt the need to come up with random topics of discussion just to keep the conversation going and sometimes felt a bit awkward facing her silence.

I smiled inside of me. A few days before, I had had a similar conversation with the same Dutch friend about how odd she founded that our Italian housemate always talked, sometimes coming up with dead-end stories and she couldn’t understand why he was doing that!

So, I share with you what I told them about a very fascinating topic: the value of silence for us Italians in particular.

In Italy we are scared of silence. Especially when we’re alone in a room with another person, or maybe two. We’re educated in a way that we feel obliged to say something to fill that silence, whatever that might be: a comment about the weather, or the room’s décor or any small talk really. It’s somehow impolite to leave between our guest and ourselves some silence.

It’s important to help the other person, to stimulate them to keep the conversation going, even when it implies interrupting and suggesting the words we think they might be looking for. It all comes from an intention of kindness and helpfulness.

However, by reading books on intercultural communication and by listening to other friends’ confessions, I realized that this attitude is perceived everywhere else in the world as quite rude and intruding. But I assure you that we don’t mean to!

From what my Dutch friend told me in turn, I understood that for them, in the Netherlands, it’s a matter of relevance: you speak when you have something to say. Something that would add value to the silence. Otherwise you better stay silent and not disturb the quietness.

But to the very opposite extreme stand the Finns that could stay in silent for a very long time, without feeling uncomfortable, nor in the urge to say anything. Their motto is:

Silence is gold, talking is silvera national saying goes.

And you can find here a funny video illustrating the extreme silence on a Finnish bus

So, you see. I have just described 3 different approaches, each one with something valuable to teach to the others. Of course everything that I write is only based on my experience, with the people I have met and come across in my life. So it could be that you’ve had a totally different experience, because, as the interculturalist and researcher Edwin Hoffman puts it :

Cultures don’t meet, people do

Edwin Hoffman

I am curious to read what you think and if you’ve had other experiences with other cultures on the matter. Please leave a comment, if you wish.

In the middle of the Northern English moor

4 thoughts on “On the value of silence for different cultures

  1. I live in Helsinki, Finland. I did not find it funny, not at all. Slagging off other nations is not a civilized way! Now You may think that I do not have any ideas about other cultures, not travelled. I am not young, but I have travelled a lot of in our world, once made a round the world trip, because I worked all my life for our national airline Finnair. I have also made my road trips to Europe thus visiting many countries.

    In the 50s 60s, 70s, I could have understood it, to some extent, but now we live in the 20s! I have visited in Italy, in Rome, Milano, Sorrento, Capri, Vesuvius and Pompeii. If You read my posts about Milano, Sorrento, Capri, Vesuvius and Pompeii, You will notice, that I praise Italy, its beauty, its history and its people!!!

    Buona giornata.


    1. Hello, thank you for sharing your view. I wanted to stress, however, that I am not insulting at all other cultures, far from it. In fact I am analysing the different ways that people from different countries handle silence. If you see, I am also self-critical about the Italian culture, when needed. So I am sorry if you felt offended, because it wasn’t in my intentions .

      Liked by 1 person

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