A four second silence leads to feelings of rejection

The Tweet: “It takes 4 seconds for a silence to become awkward.”

The feelings we share of anxiety and embarrassment during awkward silences could explain how we use conversations to communicate agreement, belonging and acceptance. We have all experienced the conversational faux pas, but the root of the awkwardness could lie in how we make and maintain social bonds. “People synchronize their behaviors in interactions,” commented Namkje Koudenburg from the University of Groningen, “this suggests that conversational flow could increase people’s sense of belonging.” However, the four second mark in the tweet is a bit simplistic.

Researchers from the Netherlands explored how people interpret gaps in conversations. In the first part of the study, participants were presented with a short story in which one character made a controversial remark about overweight people needing to pay for two seats on a bus. For one group of participants the story contained a short gap of silence after the remark, and for a second group there was no silence. The participants were then asked to rate how popular the remark was with the group of people in the story. More of the participants reading the story without the silence said that the group of characters agreed with the comment. The participants reading the story with silence were more likely to comment about feelings of rejection or ostracism.

The second part of the study dealt with a more realistic scenario. The participants watched a video of students having a conversation and were asked to imagine being one of the students. The groups of participants were again divided into two groups, one who’s video contained a four second silence and one without silence. The figure of four seconds was reached after trialing 2, 4, 5 and 6 second gaps. Four seconds was long enough for the audience to notice and awkwardness without the conversation feeling unnatural. Again the groups of participants associated gaps in the conversation with feelings of rejection, and flowing conversation with agreement.

“Conversational flow fosters feelings of belonging, social validation, control, and selfesteem,” concluded the study. “However, conversational flow can be disrupted by a brief silence. As we expect conversational flow to satisfy social needs, we expect that disrupting it will threaten these needs.”

To say that four seconds is a magic figure at which point a silence becomes awkward might be reading too much into this piece of research. It’s simply the amount of time that was most convincing in this video. The rest of the research probably doesn’t tell us anything we couldn’t have predicted ourselves. What is interesting is how important social cues are for us to agree or reject a comment in conversion. We can all relate to feelings of awkwardness during stilted conversation which shows how sensitive we are to each others cues.

Image credit: johannesaxner (Flickr)
This post was first published on The Untweetable Truth (10/11/2014)
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