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August 14, 2003 - Sound of Silence - 2003-08-14

Broadcast on COAST TO COAST: August 14, 2003

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER -- the sound of silence in American English.

RS: If you're looking for clues to people's emotions, you could listen to what they say. You could also listen to what they don't say. That's the sort of research Emily Butler does.

AA: She's working on her doctorate in psychology at Stanford University in California. Emily Butler is interested in how people regulate their emotions. She gives a classic example.

BUTLER: "You're with acquaintances and someone makes some remarks that you find highly offensive, but you certainly don't want to get in a fight about it in that circumstance, and so you say nothing, or politely smile and nod as opposed to expressing your actual annoyance and anger and disgust or whatever."

RS: "What message does that communicate to the person who made the remark?"

BUTLER: "What I think we're finding in our research is that it depends a lot on the other person, the person who made the remark. Some will blithely go along having completely not noticed that the other person is suppressing something, and be completely happy with a smile and a nod. Someone a little more astute or who cares more about the connection to the person who's suppressing will likely pick up that there's something lacking in that response."

RS: "How do you study these reactions?"

BUTLER: "The work that I do, as I say, comes out of the research on emotion regulation, or the different ways that we go about controlling our emotions. And I've had women, young women, come to the lab -- women who haven't met before -- and the work that I do, we're collecting physiological measures as well as videotaping them, as well as asking them a bunch of questions.

"So typically we would get them hooked up to the physiological recording, show them an upsetting film so that there's some emotional content to be regulated and to talk about, and then ask them to discuss the film amongst themselves. But just prior to the conversation, we secretly ask one of the women to try to hide her emotions during the interaction. And then we compare that to a pair of women where they're just asked to speak normally."

AA: "And what did you find?"

BUTLER: "Probably our central finding that's been replicated a few times is that when one women hides her emotions during the conversation, her partner's blood pressure goes through the roof."

AA: "Oh my goodness!"

BUTLER: "Yeah, and neither of them are very happy with the interaction. They tend not to want to have anything to do with each other again. And there's also some evidence that the woman who's doing the suppressing is also showing increased blood pressure, although it's not as big an effect or as robust as in the partner."

RS: "Are they told afterwards that she was a plant [a faker]?"

BUTLER: "Yes, very definitely, because we don't want to have these poor people to go away hating each other."

AA: "So this would be like, if the other person says something like, ‘wasn’t that awful,' and then the other woman just sits there silently?"

BUTLER: "Well, a typical -- I mean, that's exactly how the conversations go. And so one person says 'oh, I was so horrified, that was so upsetting.' And the other girl says, 'yeah, it was pretty bad, but I guess I've seen that kind of thing before, and I even thought it might be worse, and it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be.' In this example, in this specific case that we're studying, it's more a lack of expected emotional content than an actual silence."

AA: "Interesting, because I know it's -- to me, when I'm met with a silence, that's really awkward ... "

RS: "It's very awkward, uncomfortable."

AA: "Your first reaction is to try to fill the void."

RS: "You think that's typically American, though, to always want to say something?"

BUTLER: "Yes, definitely. North American culture is very quick to fill silences, and some other cultural groups actually find it rude and disruptive and can't figure out how to carry on a conversation, because of this non-stop noise [laughter] and that there's no time to ponder and construct the next, you know, contribution."

RS: "What can students of English as a foreign language, someone coming into our country, learn from the kind of work you're doing?"

BUTLER: "Well certainly, if they're coming from a cultural group that's less emotionally expressive than the North American norms, then the advice is, well, you can make life easier by being as expressive as you can, because I think our work does suggest that a typical North American partner is going to interpret lack of emotional expression in fairly negative terms."

AA: "Even if it's unintended."

BUTLER: "Exactly, because what we see -- like the women who have a suppressing partner, it's not blatant, they aren't saying, 'Oh, well, she wasn't showing any emotions.' But they do come away saying, 'well, it was just awkward, and she seemed kind of mean, and she made me kind of mad,' and things like that."

AA: Emily Butler is a Ph.D. candidate in the Psychology Department at Stanford University in California. And that's Wordmaster for this week.

RS: Our e-mail address is And you'll find our programs on the Web at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.

MUSIC: "The Sound of Silence"/Simon and Garfunkel