The Power of Silence: Social and Pragmatic Perspectives

Adam Jaworski

Jaworski's The Power of Silence and Ng & Bradac's Power in Language constitute Volumes 1 and 3 respectively of the Sage series, Language and Language Behaviors. Although each focuses on what many readers might initially consider to be mutually exclusive and maximally contrasting phenomena (i.e., silence vs. speech), they both share a concern with the issue of power in communicative contexts and how this is exercised through the use and non-use of language.

Ng & Bradac approach their subject with the underlying assumption that language functions as "a culturally conventional tool for power" (p. 3) and that their purpose in the book is to examine this aspect of language at work in daily life. They seek to reveal how and why "the seemingly casual, routine use of language can recreate, enact, or otherwise subvert influence and control" (p. 3). In approaching this task the authors explore and summarize a wide range of empirical research, discuss methodological issues, and consider power and influence in communicative contexts ranging from monological speech to conversational interaction to institutional discourse.

Chapters 2 and 3 examine the issue of powerful vs. powerless speech, what differentiates them in terms of formal linguistic features, and how particular linguistic forms affect communicators' judgments of each other and the persuasiveness of their messages. The specific linguistic forms which are considered include hesitations, hedges, intensifiers, tag questions, polite forms, and others. The roles of rate of speech, accent, standard vs. non-standard varieties, vocabulary, and language intensity are also reviewed in terms of their impact on speaker judgments. The extensive social psychological research which the authors cite is overwhelmingly experimental in orientation, and, to their credit, the limitations of such a methodology are discussed.

Influence and control in conversational interaction is the focus of Chapter 4, where issues such as turn taking, topic control, and conversational sequencing are viewed as resources or strategies through which dominant conversationalists are able to exert influence on the emerging interaction. Chapter 5, on mitigated speech, summarizes the important contributions of linguistic philosophy and pragmatics to understanding the way in which language may be used to accomplish particular ends. Through the use of concrete examples the authors demonstrate how the flouting of Grice's conversational maxims leads not only to conversational implicature but also to indirect speech and the mitigation of negative affect in the message. Mitigation is in turn linked to larger strategies of politeness.

Chapters 6 and 7 consider two related communicative phenomena, misleading communication and masking. Misleading words constitute a form of distortion which ranges from concealment of information to deliberate falsification. Equivocal and devious communications, along with particular message types (e.g., lies, secrets, and evasive messages), and metaphor are discussed in terms of speakers' communicative intentions. Masking is a related strategy of depoliticising communication, which the authors exemplify through the analysis of texts such as institutional rules, regulations, and newspaper headlines. It is in this context that contemporary work in critical linguistics is mentioned. The book concludes by examining issues of ethnolinguistic vitality and language dominance and its routinization.

While Power in Language is dominated by the experimental and quantitative focus of social psychological research on language behaviour, Jaworski's Power in Silence explicitly rejects an essentialist approach to the topic, arguing instead that the communicative power of silence is best understood from an ethnographic, relativistic, and socio-pragmatic perspective. The scope of the book is very broad and the author examines the communicative functions of silence in the spheres of religion, politics, the media, advertising, gender relations, interpersonal conversational interaction, and, from a non-linguistic perspective, in the visual arts.

Jaworski starts by providing an overview of a variety of linguistic perspectives to the study of silence and indicates his preference for an approach rooted in the ethnography of communication. As silence is potentially the most ambiguous of all forms of communication, Jaworski argues that the contextual and cultural sensitivity encouraged by an ethnographic and relativistic stance is essential if one is to grapple with the varieties of silence, their meanings and functions, and their evaluation in differing speech communities. Upon this basis, in Chapter 2, Jaworski outlines a non-essentialist stance and refuses to define silence as an absolute or discrete category (e.g., as existing in complete opposition to speech). Instead he proposes that both silence and speech are integral parts of communication and emphasizes the "nondiscrete nature of speech and silence and their significant functional overlap" (p. 62). Using the insights of cognitive linguistics and pragmatics, Chapter 3 discusses how different cultural types of silence may be identified and how these may be interpreted as having different meanings and functions. Sperber & Wilson's "relevance theory" is shown to provide a unified framework for accounting for both verbal and silent communication.

Chapter 4 focuses on the political aspects of silence. The withholding of communication, avoidance of threatening topics, and the public silencing of oppositional voices are shown to be powerful strategies of social control. Political discourse, for example, is frequently marked by a refusal to address or directly respond to questions concerning particular issues. Silencing of oppressed or dominated groups is discussed through an examination of the historical (and many would argue, the continuing) silencing of the voices of women. Likewise, denial of access to public expression through the media is an important means via which the discourse of oppositional groups becomes silenced, as Jaworski demonstrates in a number of specific cases including Poland's Solidarity Trade Union.

In the final substantive chapter, "The Extensions of Silence," Jaworski discusses silence in the arts. Utilizing Lakoff & Johnson's work on metaphor, Goffman's frame analysis, and Sperber & Wilson's relevance theory, the author argues that the representation of silence in the visual arts, among others, may be approached fruitfully with theoretical models developed to account for linguistic communication. By extending the notion of communication and of silence beyond the realm of linguistics, Jaworski suggests the possibility of "finding more consistency in the overwhelming diversity of human activity" (p. 164).

Both Power in Language and The Power of Silence provide valuable introductions and overviews of their specific areas, and, although they at times consider similar subject matter (e.g., gender issues, the media), they complement each other well both in terms of their foci (i.e., speech and silence) and their differing methodological emphases (empirical vs. interpretive). The literature review provided by Ng & Bradac is particularly thorough and informative, while the eclecticism and interdisciplinary breadth of Jaworski is stimulating and very thought-provoking. Both volumes feature numerous concrete examples and analyses for clarity, and are written in a very accessible style, thus making them ideal texts for upper-year undergraduate and graduate courses. Senior students as well as experienced researchers with interests in communication theory, interpersonal communication, political discourse, sociolinguistics, discourse analysis, and language and gender will find much of value in both texts.