Here’s the psychology behind those unbearable lulls in conversation. (Photo: Getty Images/Ezra Bailey/Yahoo Health)
It happens to everyone: You’re in the middle of a conversation and suddenly … there’s an awkward pause. Maybe you ran out of things to say or were trying to figure out how to phrase your next thought. Whatever the reason, it can be incredibly uncomfortable.
But what is it about an awkward pause that makes it so painful?
According to psychologist Namkje Koudenburg, PhD, who has conducted research on awkward silences, a flowing conversation makes us feel like we’re on the same wavelength with the people around us and gives us a sense of belonging. “A brief silence can suddenly disrupt this flow, and raise all kinds of questions about the underlying relationships,” she tells Yahoo Health.
Koudenburg’s research shows that people usually feel rejected and anxious when the conversation suddenly stops, even with a pause as short as four seconds. Also worth noting: One of Koudenburg’s studies found that people were more likely to report feelings of lower self-esteem after watching a video that contained an awkward pause, even though they weren’t actively part of the conversation.
According to psychologist Simon Rego, PsyD, director of psychology training at New York’s Montefiore Medical Center, the way a lull in the conversation is interpreted is typically all in our minds. “What one person may view as an awkward pause, another may view as meaningful silence,” he tells Yahoo Health. That’s especially true with couples or friends, he says, because both people feel less pressure to keep the conversation going than if they were chatting with someone they’d just met.
The interpretation can also depend on the different levels of power of the people who are talking, like an employee and boss, says Koudenburg. A brief pause in a conversation after someone who is seen as less powerful (the employee) is more likely to be interpreted as a rejection than when a similar pause happens after someone more powerful (the boss) has spoken. That kind of pause can actually be interpreted as appropriate or even respectful.
Unfortunately, lulls in the conversation seem to be awkward in most cultures. A study comparing the perception of conversational silences in non-western and western cultures that was published in the Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology found that people in Japan were even more uncomfortable with silence than Americans, especially when talking to strangers.
While silences can be awkward, Rego says people shouldn’t scramble to fill them when they occur (and they will occur). “They are a normal part of conversations, so sometimes it’s OK to just sit in the silence for a moment and reflect — either about what was just said or about what to say next, if anything,” he says.
If that’s too uncomfortable, psychologist Joseph Sanok recommends acknowledging the pause and moving on with something like, “Sorry, I was really thinking through your question,” or “Hmm, let me give it some thought.” If you were the last person who spoke, he suggests saying, “So, to elaborate on that thought…” or even a simple, “What do you think?” to show that you’re still invested in talking.
At the very least, rest assured that awkward silences happen to everyone.
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