The discomfort of pregnant pauses … … … … … … in different languages

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Glosso apologizes for the slightly longer-than-normal pause that followed the last post. …

It wasn’t deliberate. …

But it was slightly awkward …

How long do you think a pause in conversation has to be before it becomes uncomfortable? Two seconds? Four seconds? Eight? The BBC ran a fascinating article last week asking just this question — and whether the answer varies according to your nationality and cultural norms. As Lennox Morrison explained, “What one culture considers a perplexing or awkward pause, others see as a valuable moment of reflection and a sign of respect for what the last speaker has said.” Researchers at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands in 2010 discovered that both Dutch and English speakers started to feel uncomfortable when a silence mid-conversation stretched to 4 seconds; but another study, this time in Japan, found that native speakers were perfectly happy with pauses lasting up to 8.2 seconds. As the Japanese saying goes: “A silent man is the best one to listen to.”

The article also looks at the power of the pause (with both positive and negative effect) in many situations social and professional. There’s the pause that follows a sales pitch or the opening gambit in a business negotiation. …

The few seconds of silence that a therapist allows her patient once he’s finished speaking. …

A pregnant pause after the prosecuting counsel asks a question and before the witness begins giving evidence …

In each situation the silence itself sometimes carries as much weight and importance as the words uttered on either side of it.

In another article, on ScienceBlogs, Ed Yong explored the tiny pauses between speakers in regular, flowing conversations — asking if there were cultural differences to be found there, like the different reactions to extended pauses.

The results are interesting. “By studying 10 languages from all over the world, Tanya Stivers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics discovered a universally consistent pattern of avoiding overlaps and minimising pauses. There are small variations certainly, but they are far smaller than stereotypes might suggest. … In all ten cultures, speakers shoot for as little silence as possible without speaking over each other, and the majority of answers follow questions after virtually no delay or overlap.”

So as a species of conversationalists, we humans are pretty good at taking turns. We don’t tend to talk over each other (unless we’re a sociopath, a narcissist, or a misogynist – but those are different stories altogether), but we leave very little time — and we’re talking milliseconds here — to get our words in edgeways. … Or edgewise, if you’re American. ….

But those pauses … ….

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