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The Silent Treatment: When People Leave You Guessing

There's probably no communication more misquoted than silence.

Maybe they just didn't hear you. Or maybe they heard you just fine and have decided that you're an idiot, not even worth responding to.

Maybe they got your message but are simply too busy to respond. Maybe they're just quietly thinking it over and still haven't decided. Maybe they're so apologetic that they don't know what to say. Maybe they're just having fun leaving you dangling.

Whatever it is, it has been longer than you expected. The silence is deafening. What does it mean?

Maybe you should resend your message. After all, if they didn't hear you, they'll be glad you resent it. But if they're just busy or quietly thinking it over, then your pestering could turn them against you. And if they think you're an idiot, maybe it's better to let sleeping dogs lie.

Or maybe, if they've decided you're an idiot you should defend yourself. If they're going to be that disrespectful, let them know what you really think.

But again, what if they never got the message in the first place, or they're busy or just thinking it over, or are just feeling bad? If that's the situation, then giving them a piece of your mind will prove that you're an idiot. Lincoln said, "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt." That probably applies to responding to silence too.

Better to just wait. They're probably just busy, right? Be patient... Wait... Maybe forever. Wait for people who probably think you're such an idiot that they don't need to respond.

Or just ask them, maybe. Ask them what's up. They won't mind. Unless they think you're a pest. A needy pest over-anxious and supplicating: "Did you get my message? What did you think? I desperately need to know what you think."

This is infuriating. Even if they are busy, it's clear they don't respect you.

What's worse, their silence is like a shell game. Whatever you do, you'll reveal what you think their silence means and then, switcheroo, they can just change their explanation. You can say, "You're not speaking to me because you think I'm an idiot, right?" and even if that's exactly why, they can always say, "My aren't you paranoid. Actually, we've just been really busy." Or you can say, "You've been too busy to respond, right?" and even if that's their story, they can switch it, saying, "My aren't you paranoid. Actually we were thinking about it."

Their shell game is as bad as "I'm thinking of a number between 1 and 10." Whatever you guess, they can claim they were thinking of a different number.

What's worse still, no matter how crazy their silence drives you, they're unassailable. They can always say "What? We didn't do or say anything!" Silence pleads innocence whether it's innocent or not.

Bob Monkhouse says,"Silence is not only golden; it is seldom misquoted." That's cute, but it's absolutely wrong. There's probably no communication more misquoted than silence. It's very hard to know what it says.

Silence is a window into a fundamental misunderstanding in semiotics, or the study of signs. In general and even in academic research, we assume that a sign is a thing. We say, "A green light means go," as though the meaning was in the light itself.

But if signs are things, are all things signs? How do we know which things are signs and which things aren't? And what about silence? It's not a thing. How can the absence of a thing be a sign? And yet it is. The absence of a tax form on April 15 is a sign to the IRS. The absence of the supper you were expecting can be a very big sign served up to you by your soon-to-be ex-partner.

We live in an era that people will look back upon as misguidedly thingish. We're sailing on the successes of a 350-year campaign to explain all behavior from physics to meaning by identifying the component parts and things that produce the behavior. We're having trouble explaining signs that way, but our thingish scientific culture says we'll get there. We will figure out, for example, how neuron things produce consciousness.

There are anti-thing factions in our culture too, but they too buy into our culture's thingish-ness. They believe in non-thing thingies like Gods and souls, things that are not at all physical and yet move physical things. Even if their non-thing thingies did exist, we can't get a handle on them. We could lazily posit one to cover anything we don't understand. Why is silence so powerful? Because silence is produced by an invisible, undetectable but powerful non-thing thingie.

Our culture became so heavily thingish during the enlightenment, a scientific campaign in which scientist abandoned mystical explanations and ventured instead to explain all behavior in terms of physical causality: Thing-X bumps Thing-Y and moves it.

And wow, has the campaign been powerful. This focus on physical causality has given us all of our science and technology breakthroughs. It has made the modern world. No wonder we trust that X-bumps-Y will eventually explain everything.

But it won't. A sign isn't Thing X bumps Thing Y. A green light doesn't hit you and make you go.

Rather, signs are a different kind of causality. They're X-for-Y-is-about-Z. The green light for you is about traffic.

A sign is not a thing; It's an evolved or learned relationship. Signs change, which is good news about there being room for still more evolving, learning, innovation, discoveries, progress, improvement, learning and open potential, as opposed to their being no room in a deterministic, mechanistic clockwork universe, in which the future is already a totally dead and done deal.

Green lights aren't signs, or things that always mean "go" to everyone. They're what a semiotician calls a "sign vehicle," a difference or change in something (red to green) that, for us has come to represent traffic. One semiotician, Gregory Bateson, describes a sign relationship as "A difference that makes a difference," the way a difference from red to green makes a difference for you about the difference between stopping and going.

We evolve or learn such relationships when our expectations are not met, when we're surprised. A bell becomes a sign vehicle for Pavlov's dog about food, because—news to the dog—it's rung as supper is served. Learning the bell's relationship to food sets up new expectations and new potential for surprises and learned responses. Surprise: The bell rings, and for the first time, no supper is served.

The IRS has learned to expect a tax return on April 15th, and, surprise, it doesn't get one from you. The IRS has evolved a response to your silent treatment. It's called an audit.

Any difference can become a sign vehicle for us about something. Silence—not a thing but a difference, a divergence from expectation—can become a difference that makes a difference. You expected to hear back from those folks by now. You're surprised and are trying to figure out what that difference from expectations means for you.