Monday, September 11, 2017


In physics, we learn that “nature abhors a vacuum.” In North America, we learn that Americans abhor a verbal vacuum. Americans are uncomfortable with silence and always want to keep the conversational flow going.

If your culture values silence (particularly common in East and Southeast Asia, and among younger, female or lower-level people in hierarchical cultures) –or if your unease with English keeps you from speaking needlessly—you must learn to add words or phrases around the core of what you want to say.

When there is a lapse in the conversation, Americans will feel the need to fill the void, to say something, anything! Especially in business, a smooth conversationalist will keep the talk moving. Business people may not add much content to the conversation, but they will add easy “lead-in’s” and re-phrasing to avoid an awkward pause (“well, I’m sure you’ve got a point there, but remember, as I said before, the important thing is to…”).

In academic and scientific circles, silent, thoughtful moments are more acceptable, but even there, verbal embellishments may be made. Instead of giving a one-word answer (“yes,” “no,” “okay”) you might instead stretch it out to say, “Sure, sounds reasonable,” or “No, I have to say I don’t agree completely,” or “Okay, I’ll get right on it.” When you’re not sure what to say in answer to a difficult question, instead of sitting silent you might mention the thought process that underlies the silence (“hmm, that’s a tough one. Let me give it some thought and get back to you”).

In casual conversation, it is equally important to keep the flow going. We talked in earlier Tips about how to follow a “ping-pong” or “basketball” model for maintaining a back-and-forth pattern. This is what makes you seem engaged with others and shows you are an interesting conversational partner.

And don’t forget, too, that non-verbal gestures –nodding, smiling, etc.—work along with words to embellish your statements and stretch out their effect.