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The Deep Pain of Awkward Silences

• December 17, 2010 • 2:49 PM

Remarks that stop the conversation cold at social gatherings can instantly elicit deep-seated feelings of exclusion.

It’s the moment everyone dreads at holiday social gatherings. You’re enjoying a free-flowing, spontaneous conversation with a group of friends, colleagues or family members, until you inject what you think is a clever, or at least interesting, remark.

The result is an awkward, almost unbearable silence, which lasts until someone jumps in to fill the verbal void with something — anything.

Why are those few soundless seconds so incredibly uncomfortable? Newly published research suggests they elicit primal fears, activating anxiety-provoking feelings of incompatibility and exclusion.

“Conversational flow is associated with positive emotions, and a heightened sense of belonging, self-esteem, social validation and consensus,” a research team led by psychologist Namkje Koudenburg writes in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. “Disrupting the flow by a brief silence produces feelings of rejection and negative emotions.”

Koudenburg, who is on the faculty of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, conducted two studies that support this conclusion. In the first, 102 participants (all undergraduates) read a story and were asked to imagine themselves as the narrator. At one point, the narrator, who is having a conversation with friends, makes a mildly controversial statement (“I think obese people should pay for two seats on the bus”).

Half the students read a version of the story in which “one of the fellow students smoothly continued the conversation on the previous topic, making no further reference regarding this statement.” The others were informed that the remark led to a short pause (“Briefly, it remains silent. Suzanne stirs her coffee”).

The participants then reported the degree to which they felt a series of emotions, including anger and fear, as well as their level of self-esteem. Those in the “disrupted-flow condition” — that is, those who imagined themselves in the position of someone whose remark had landed with a thud — “felt  significantly more rejected and reported more negative emotions,” the researchers report.

“Flowing conversations are associated with higher feelings of belonging, control, self-esteem, social validation and perceived consensus,” the researchers write. “Furthermore, disrupted conversations increase negative emotions and feelings of rejection, resembling ostracism experiences. This indicates that a brief disruption of conversational flow is interpreted as rejection, even when nobody is factually excluded from the conversation.”

In a second study, 60 undergraduates watched one of two six-minute videos, during which one participant in a conversation makes a controversial remark. In the first version of the video, “the other group members smoothly continued the conversation” by moving to a different topic. In the second, “the statement was followed by four seconds of silence, after which the conversation continued.”

The participants “did not consciously detect the silence,” the researchers report. (Their estimate of how much time elapsed between the statement in question and the next statement out of someone’s mouth was the same, no matter which of the videos they watched.) But they noted it on an unconscious level, with those who observed the pause reporting “more rejection, more negative emotions and less positive emotions.”

“A mere four-second silence suffices to disrupt the conversational flow, and make one feel distressed, afraid, hurt and rejected,” the researchers write.

These results suggest “groups that converse harmoniously make people feel they belong,” the researchers conclude. “People do not always actively search for opinions of others, but they can validate their opinions by deriving a general feeling of consensus from fluent conversations.” When that fluency is disrupted, those positive feelings of belonging instantly evaporate, leaving the person who made the awkward remark metaphorically out in the cold.

Koudenburg and her colleagues note this is laboratory-based rather than real-world research, but they add they would expect “stronger effects may be observed in real-life situations.” After all, actually feeling ostracized is more intense than imagining yourself in that position.

So at your next holiday party, if someone says something off the wall and stops the conversation cold, be kind. This research suggests the discomfort he or she is experiencing goes surprisingly deep.

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Tom Jacobs
Staff writer Tom Jacobs is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years experience at daily newspapers. He has served as a staff writer for The Los Angeles Daily News and the Santa Barbara News-Press. His work has also appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, and Ventura County Star.

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