What we say without words

Awkward silences

Nothing is quite as awkward as a conversation suddenly falling silent. Namkje Koudenburg is trying to find out why.
By Christien Boomsma / Translation by Sarah van Steenderen

‘I don’t understand what all the fuss is about. That slut cup… it’s funny, isn’t it?’

The girl making this remark has no idea what she just said. But what follows clues her in almost immediately: dead silence. The silence stretches for one, two, three whole seconds… And then someone quickly changes the subject. ‘Man, that was some storm last week, wasn’t it?’

Oof. The uncomfortable moment has passed.

No one expressly said it, but the girl knows that what she said was wrong. Not okay. ‘And the next time a topic like this comes up, she won’t say anything like that again. She’ll adjust her opinion’, says RUG social psychologist Namkje Koudenburg.

Poke fun

During her PhD research, Koudenburg became fascinated with ordinary, day-to-day conversations. But she’s not interested in the actual things being said. Instead, Koudenburg wants to know about the feelings caused by these kinds of conversations and which factors play a role: the so-called conversational flow. It turns out that silence is an essential component.

‘When a conversation is going well, when people respond well to each other, they feel better afterwards. “There was a real click”, they’ll say’, Koudenburg explains. ‘But when there are awkward silences, they feel worse.’

Everyone knows how awkward silences are used in sitcoms such as Friends or The Big Bang Theory. They always get big laughs. Some television presenters use silence to unsettle their guests, or to poke fun at them. ‘Silence makes people feel uncomfortable, hurt, or even threatened’, says Koudenburg. ‘It works as a social regulator.’


To find out how that works exactly, Koudenburg had a test subject carry on a conversation in her laboratory. Two actors were tasked with being silent for more than four seconds during the conversation. Long enough to be uncomfortable, but not long enough that the test subject would understand what Koudenburg was studying. ‘It turned out to be an unpleasant experience for everyone involved’, she says. ‘Four seconds is a really long time. The actors had to literally count them to prevent themselves from talking.’

The people who were subjected to the silences felt hurt, excluded, or even threatened afterwards. But the other participants didn’t feel great either.

For Koudenburg, this was an important clue about the importance of silence. Conversations, especially about nothing in particular, inform people about their position within the group. When the flow is disrupted, it means the group’s unity has been broken. ‘People are very sensitive to that.’

Silence radar

People have a silence radar, one that is much more finely tuned than the four seconds in Koudenburg’s tests. Repeated shorter silences have the same effect, even when people didn’t even realise they were there.

It’s important to understand the mechanism behind it, says Koudenburg. Due to modern means of communication, ‘jerky’ conversations are increasingly common. Think of a Skype conversation where the picture freezes, or a video conference suffering from a small delay.

‘It rubs people the wrong way’, says Koudenburg. ‘There were more silences, more interruptions, and in the end, people agreed with each other less. Depending on what they’d actually said to each other.’

It is important information in a society in which communication plays an increasingly larger role in shaping people’s opinions and polarisation runs rampant. Because of this, Koudenburg will investigate the subject even further over the next few years. This summer, she was awarded a Veni grant worth 250,000 euros. She wants to use it to prove that silence even plays a role in driving cultural changes. ‘The microdynamics in a conversation can act as a catalyst’, she thinks.


Microdynamics are all those tiny signals that tell the people in a conversation whether they’re on the same wavelength or not. Think of mirroring – copying how your conversation partner is sitting or standing. Or interrupting. Or being silent.

Koudenburg also thinks her research will have practical applications. The increasing social polarisation means that now more than ever, we need to understand these social processes. ‘Say you organise a meeting for local residents because a refugee centre is going up in the neighbourhood. You want to do everything in your power to prevent the conversation from polarising. A proper moderator is a good step towards creating a nice flow. The way a conversation goes is just as important in influencing how people feel about each other and whether they’ll contribute, as the actual content of the conversation.’

So the question remains: is silence always bad? What about couples who have been living together in peace for years and who have no trouble being ‘silent together’? Koudenburg laughs. ‘Funnily enough, people in strong relationships often experience silence as being more positive than conversation. That’s probably because people know the other person so well they just assume that they agree.’ In that case, words would only disrupt the – supposed – harmony.


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