Notes on the Culture of Silence

The simple act of not saying anything can be a dead sentence to your team.

In my early professional career I experienced first hand a team culture that revolved around SILENCE. When I say silence, I mean lack of written or spoken words of any kind, 99% of the time. It was only years later that I realized how aggressive, disrespectful, and how undermining it was for the identity of the group. I hesitated for more than a year to write about this, but I think it’s time.

In the Beginning, There Was Silence. Or Not.

It may not be easy to relate to situations when this happens, so here are some fictional examples:

  • Imagine yourself in a meeting with 30–50 people. Someone was talking for 30 minutes presenting ideas, concepts, etc. The presenter has time to continue going for other 30 more minutes, but the presenter stops and ask a question: how are you people feeling? shall I keep going or do you need a break?
    Clearly this is not a yes/no answer. Some type of answer is expected. And yet, the presenter is faced with silence.
  • Imagine that you are a remote worker. You use Slack or similar to communicate with the rest of your team. You know there is an upcoming general meeting sometime today. There’s the general channel of the organization with three hundred people, so you ask there: hey, at what time are we meeting today so I can join?
    Clearly, this is not a agree/disagree answer, and yet the worker is faced with silence.
  • Your group is organizing a hiking trip and they are asking who’s in to organize the trip, transport and food. You don’t answer.
    Should they count you in? Should they count you out? Should they assume you didn’t read the message? Should they assume you are unsure? All these questions are good, but why would they need to assume things on the first place?
  • Imagine that your best friend has been working on some amazing project for the last three months. You know your friend worked day and night to meet deadlines, to improvise solutions to new problems, meet with clients and deliver on time. He made it to the deadline, he delivered, he save the day! You go for a drink and you ask how did it go. He answers that he doesn’t know, that no one at work said anything about his results. Silence.
  • Imagine that you are a remote team lead, and you have to show your management that your team is being efficient. You ask your team for weekly updates by end of each week. Thursday is here, your team is silent. Friday is here, your team is silent. Monday is here, your team is silent. Are they working on something? Are they behind schedule? Did they got my message? How many more times should I ask? Twice a day? Are they avoiding you? You ask for advice, and you are told that they never talk, but they most likely have read your message.

This culture of silence can be devastating for a team. If you don’t talk, you don’t participate, you don’t contribute, then why are you there on the first place? Working in a team is not only about you. It’s about bringing your best and making everyone else be at their best, and that implies communicating, cheering for each other, celebrating, sharing questions, sharing answers, complaining together, exchanging ideas, discussing. Don’t be a leecher.

Searching for the Root Cause

Discussing this Culture of Silence with coworkers, peers, friends, and strangers, I found some common excuses justifying staying silent. Here are some that I heard over the years:

  • Silence means agreement.
    I OBVIOUSLY agree, no need to clarify.
  • Silence means uncertainty. 
    I will write back when I know FOR SURE the stuff (never happens).
    I won’t write back because I fear I’m wrong, and I don’t like being wrong.
  • Silence means I read it, but you know my stand, so no need to clarify.
    We know each other for 3 months, you should know I agree on this!
  • Silence means that I got the message, but we will discuss it in private, if I remember.
  • We do our job, no need to tell each other how good we are. So, silence.
  • That person knows how good he/she is and how good his/her achievement was. No need to get him/her extra attention. So, silence.
  • I want people to ask me personally. So, silence.
    They should know that if I don’t answer something is wrong and they should ask me in private.
  • Silence means I don’t care about [whatever]. You should know about that.

The thing is that SILENCE internally have different meanings for different people. But actually silence is silence, it’s just you not saying anything! When it comes to silence, everyone assumes different things, but they are just assumptions that live in our own heads!

When you have deep relationships and understanding with some people, your silence can be well interpreted. But when you are working with 300 people, and the majority doesn’t really know you, silence is aggressive. You are turning your coworkers into beggars. It shows disrespect because it shows that you don’t care enough to write a simple answer. And not caring for your own group tells A LOT about you as a person.

People shouldn’t be cracking their heads to decipher what you meant! Are you upset? Are you happy? Do you agree? Are you against? Do you have second thoughts? Are you all in? People you work with shouldn’t have to beg you for an answer. This takes so much of their time. And let’s be honest, there is only so much time people can put up with this culture of silence.

If you are of those staying silent, and no one is asking you follow up questions, it means other people doesn’t care about you anymore. And that’s a bad place to be in any workspace.

Communicate

The solution to silence is really simple:

  • If someone asks, answer.
  • If you achieved something, share it.
  • If someone shares an achievement, cheer.
  • If someone announces news, acknowledge.
  • If someone says something inappropriate, call it out.
  • If you want to be part of something, communicate.

Not everything is about you. Communicating is showing that you care; it is a way of giving back or paying it forward to the group you belong; it is avoiding reinventing the wheel; it is making sure that 2+2>4.

Be better.

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