Reading Researchers: Dr Melani Schröter on Language and Silence

In a regular feature, we’ll bring you updates from “Reading Researchers,” highlighting the innovative and compelling research that members of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies are pursuing. For the latest installment, we’ve asked Dr Melani Schröter, Assoociate Professor in German Studies, to update us on her work on silence and absence in discourse and communication. We wanted to know why, when a lot of silence passes by unnoticed, some doesn’t. Here’s what Dr Schröter has to say:

M.ShroeterThere are so many things that people never say – beneath what people do talk about, there is a deep ocean of the unsaid, because we cannot spell out everything we ever perceive or think; we do not want to talk about everything we experience; we seem to even be unable to put some feelings or experiences into words; and some topics (e.g. excretion or death) are no-go areas in many situations. However, these things are hardly ever perceived as silence.

I am fascinated by the question of what makes some absences in communication go by unnoticed and what makes others come to be perceived as silence, and what makes some silences more communicative, more notable than others. There are conventional silences, like a minute of silence at remembrance rituals or at funerals. They have some sort of agreed meaning, to signify mourning or respect. Here, we expect people to remain silent, we know roughly what silence means in these situations and it would be unexpected and unacceptable to disrupt these silences with speech.

These are in my view not the most communicative silences. More interesting and more puzzling to me are those silences that people only perceive as silence because they have expected that something would have been said – e.g. a missing answer to a question. It is the disappointed expectation of presence that makes an absence noticeable. If we did not expect anyone to say anything (about a certain matter), then we would not perceive this as an absence. This is the place where secrets are safe – when we do not even have a clue that something might be hidden. Only once we know that there is a secret will we perceive the silence around it.

We also have to have reason to assume that a person is silent about something deliberately. There are ‘symptomatic’ silences, like speechlessness after a shock, but we would not assume that people in such a situation are trying to ‘tell’ us something (like ‘bugger off’) or to conceal something with their silence – we would understand that it is symptomatic rather than symbolic behaviour.

The most notable silences are those where we think that a person is intentionally silent, when we have to interpret this silence as an act of communication; indicating, for example “I don’t want to talk about this”, “I don’t want to/I am not allowed to talk to you (about this)”, “I cannot be bothered by you (at the moment)”, etc. There may be ‘accidents’, though; sometimes people’s headphones are quite concealed; you might ask them a question and get no reply, which might trigger one of the above interpretations.

In many situations, it also matters whether or not a silence is about something relevant. We find it amusing when children hide objects and make a secret out of things that seem completely irrelevant for anyone outside that child’s mental universe. We might have ‘accidents,’ such as this one: “Why did you not tell me about X?” “Oh, I did not think X was important.” When people don’t talk about something that we find irrelevant, we will hardly ever perceive this as a silence.

Therefore, silence becomes most meaningful and communicative, and often also urgent and disturbing when we expected that something would have been said (about a certain matter), when we have reason to assume that something has been deliberately left out and when what we miss is relevant to us.

dapsac_48_hbIn my book Silence and concealment in political discourse (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 2013), I investigated these constellations in the contexts of politicians’ silences and political scandals. At present, I continue work in this area by looking at public debates in present day Germany in which some groups or their exponents try to conquer discursive ground by claiming that their views are the views of a silent majority which is silenced by taboos set up by a vocal minority. They claim that they are bravely breaking these taboos and thereby fight for their own and everyone’s right to freedom of speech, but in essence it is a debate that we know since the advent of political correctness, involving the difficult question of whether there should be freedom of hate speech as well…watch this space, part of UKIP’s discourse moves along these lines, too.

For more information about Dr Schröter‘s ongoing research projects, as well as for information about how you can pursue similar interests as an undergraduate or post-graduate student, please visit the website of the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading. To keep up with all of the Department’s students, staff, and alumni, follow this blog, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to our Twitter feed.