What Do We Say When We Do Not Say Anything?

Mihai-Silviu Chirila

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We live in a world where people talk so much and listen to other people so little, complaining all the time that no one understands us, or that we are so alone in the world.

There are times when we have to hide our feelings or our information behind big words. Politics is the “art” of doing so, and we have to bear all day long speeches that say many words that mean absolutely nothing.

There is even a new language invented to help us speak without saying anything. It is called, with a word created by another genius, “Newspeak.”

There are times when we follow the genius poet who says “Speak less than thou knowest.” Then we keep our mouth shut, and, if we know how, we make sure we are not betrayed by our body language.

However, there are people who want to know what is beneath empty words. What do we say when we actually don’t say anything? There is even a branch of psychology created to read the words we do not say in words; it is called “nonverbal communication.”

Nonverbal communication refers to all forms of communication between people that do not involve speaking abilities. In fact, all our gestures can be deemed as such.

The way we walk, sit down or stand up, salute, utter the words or shake hands constitutes what we generally call nonverbal communication.

When trying to communicate, we must be aware of all the details that practically make up the message that we sometimes convey even without wanting to, especially without wanting to.

Most of the nonverbal communication principles are derived from the psychological observation of human behavior. The research conducted over the last century especially refined the way we understand our own behavior.

That is why we are more careful about our gestures that can give away what we say when we do not say anything. Every negotiator knows that the way we shake hands speaks about our character: if we extend the hand with the palm inclined downwardly, we let others know we have a dominant personality. If the palm is upwardly inclined, we demonstrate a subservient attitude.

We speak about the way we perceive ourselves and the others when we sit around a table, or in any circumstance, creating different positions of strength by a mere gesture.

Psychological explanations do not exhaust the multitude of nonverbal communication aspects. Everyone of us has a distinct spiritual heritage, which shapes our world vision, thus imprinting on our minds certain behavioral patterns.

Therefore, a very important role in the way we communicate is played by our cultural background.

We come from different nations, with different attitudes toward life, and the other people.

There are so many factors that come together in shaping the way we communicate with other people around us: cultural factors, religious habits, social prejudices.

They all give our behavior a special note, something different, even though we refer to things that are supposed to be taken for granted.

It is very important to know all the cultural details of the person we speak to, so that we understand correctly the message that is being conveyed to us.

Normal language, body language, different gestures, they all make up what we understand of this world, so we must know them all, if we want to have a correct reading of what we are being told one way or another.

Let’s see some examples of cross-cultural differences that contribute to better understanding the importance of knowing how different people perceive the same things.
A friend of mine went to Tunisia, where he visited the beautiful sites this African country has to show the tourists. At some point, he arrived to the Bazar. As he was gazing at the immense amount of merchandise displayed by the local merchants, his eye was caught by a narghile.

He asked about the price, and the merchant told him, with a large smile upon his face, that the narghile in question was worth 100 Euros. My friend was very close to a heart attack.

He told him he would never pay that money for such an item. The trader asked: “Why not? It is no ordinary narghile.”

Then, he began telling an incredible “1001 Nights fairy tale” about his narghile.

It had been forged in Syria, our merchant explained, and its component parts had been brought from all over the Islamic world.

And so, he went on describing the beauty of Syria, and the richness of Iran, the modernity of Turkey and the beauty of the women in Morocco.

When he finished, he sold my friend the precious narghile for 10 Euros. And he invited him to come back for more.

How did my friend convince him to cut down to 10% of the initial demand? He talked to him. In fact, he didn’t even talk. He listened to him.

For Arabs, trade is not all about making profit; it is about meeting people, sharing thoughts, ideas, experiences.

Trade is about establishing a communion between people. Does it surprise us then that the founder of the Islamic religion was a merchant?

The moral of the story is that we can trade to our advantage with an Arab, if we know this little detail. Arabs do not like Westerners who dig into their pockets and pay the requested money without bargaining a little.

Speaking of Arab people. When I was a student, I went to an Arab restaurant to have dinner with a friend.

It was the first time I was doing this, so it came as a huge surprise when the owner of the restaurant came to greet us with a smile upon his face, thanking us for doing him the honor of crossing his threshold.

He then invited us to sit, and sent a waiter to bring us a cup of tea on the house and take the orders.

I was shocked, because I had never encountered courtesy turned into pure art, though I take pride in saying that over the years I met my share of people that deserve to be called “arbiter elegantiarum.”

As we were enjoying dinner I couldn’t help noticing my friend was looking very intensely at a nearby table where very many Arab ladies, most of them students, were enjoying their dinner, too.

I had to interrupt my friend’s “chemistry exploring,” and ask him to move his eyes off the beautiful woman he was gazing upon because I knew that much: Arab people don’t fancy the idea of people starring at their wives, sisters, cousins and so on.

Although my friend was broken for the rest of the evening, we saved face, we enjoyed, when we left, the same parade of civility we had had when we stepped in, and, what’s most important, we left in one piece.


I know a very classy Greek gentleman who lives in my town. Like all Greeks, he is a devout of the Orthodox Christian faith. His moral conduct is an inspiration to all of us.

And yet, he managed to appall our entire Christian congregation. How? On one Sunday, at the end of the liturgy service, he went out into the church yard and… lit a cigarette.

Everybody eyeballed at him. It took a lot of explaining to convince our parishioners that in Greece smoking has no moral strings attached, and the man meant no disrespect.

Had he remembered in time that the people he lived among think smoking is a certified way to hell, he would have saved himself a whole lot of trouble.

There was a time when, as a student, in order to get home, I had to walk across a Gypsy neighborhood. All my friends advised me against it, fearing for my safety. Yet, I never hesitated to take that route. It is not about courage or open-mindedness. It is because of the information I had about Gypsies.

I knew that Gypsies do not attack people in their neighborhood for obvious reasons: they do not want to draw police attention to their houses or families.

I read a few days ago, in a book of Daniel Goleman, the inventor of “emotional intelligence,” about a company’s executive who proposed some Japanese company a deal.

After carefully explaining the project, and employing every communication trick there is to be employed so that the idea be accepted, the executive’s team was met with a profound silence.

The Japanese counterparts were not saying anything, determining the members of the team pack up their things and get ready to go.

The executive knew that the Japanese were not so effusive in explaining their thoughts, even when they like something.

So, he told the team to stay, and watched the body language of the Japanese executive, who was giving out all the signs that he was content.

When the Japanese spoke at last was to tell the Americans he agreed to the their project and they got the job.

As we can see, information is the key to good communication. There are a lot of cultural aspects that must be taken into account, so that we are in control of what we say when we do not say anything.11

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