Friday, August 22, 2008

Silence Equals Consensus?

There was diversity training at my office the other day, and it was painful (not because of the topic, only that it's so tedious). Everyone else was a good sport about it, but I wanted badly to leave. In any case, the instructor made a statement during the three hour session that seemed appropriate to mention here. She said, "Silence means consensus." I'm taking her statement out of context, of course, but I've heard this phrase used before and I don't agree with it. The point being made is this: if you don't speak up about someone's "wrong" behavior, then you're accepting of it and possibly even complicit in encouraging it. For instance, if someone is using derogatory or stereotypical terms when discussing others, not calling the person on it is the same as agreeing with it. But I think there are many other reasons why a person might remain silent.

A person might:
  • See their silence as a rejection of the behavior, and their lack of participation, verbal or otherwise, is evidence of that;
  • Think the behavior is unacceptable by personal standards, but realize that in most cases people should be entitled to their beliefs, however idiotic and wrong-headed they may be;
  • Be lost in thought about it;
  • Just not care to contribute anything;
  • Be in shock;
  • Have more important things on their mind, like what kind of groceries to get later or what to do once the weekend arrives;
  • Plan to send a written note rather than discuss matters openly;
  • Or any number of things.
What's funny is how much emphasis the instructor put on being open-minded. And yet she was quick to jump to conclusions about a person's silence. I'd say that is very judgmental. What is it about silence that troubles people so much?



Anonymous said...

Consider this: how will anyone know if there is disagreement if no-one voices it?

As a theoretical concept, your point makes sense, but in reality you'd need to be psychic in order to find this out.

I'm curious to see what your response to this comment is.

Zeri Kyd said...

Anon, I was faulting the statement as a wrongful generalization, especially coming in the midst of diversity training.

To answer your question, though, I'd say that there are many ways to display disagreement without doing so publicly or even out loud. But, I also don't think it's always necessary to let others know whether there's disagreement; sometimes, it's just not very important. And, as you said about the theory, just because no one voiced disagreement doesn't mean that consensus should be assumed.

I do agree with you that, in practice, there are times when it is important for a person to speak up. Just ... not all the time.

One more thing: Sometimes, silence itself is a form of protest. Or a form of opting out, at least. For example, not joining in with a group involved in joking about a sensitive issue is one way -- I think -- of showing disagreement.

But my main point was that the phrase "Silence means consensus" is an unfair and flawed perspective. Plus, it seems to be a rule designed for those who are more social.

Unknown said...

Silence can be a very frightening thing for people who are not accustomed to the sound of their own thoughts. When it is silent long enough, truths begin to well up from deep inside.

Zeri Kyd said...

AmongTheRuins, agreed. Not getting verbal feedback all the time is often disconcerting for people.

Anonymous said...

If that lady bugs us about silence as agreement, we should just let some air out of our butts to fill the silence. Gee, she assumes too much.

Zeri Kyd said...

Anon, funny. And, yes, she probably does assume too much. Then again, I may have made too much of her "good intentions." Ah, well ...