The Sounds of Silence

ShhTwo smart, young and impressive Zambian friends of mine shocked me recently by recounting a story of when a new boss had joined their organisation. “Oh yes,” said the first solemnly, “we made an extra special effort to say nothing for the first month.” “Why on earth?” I replied belying once again the many aspects of Zambian culture I am blinded to. “Well to show respect of course” replied the second, “in fact the whole office said nothing for almost a month.”

Silence is a defining feature of Zambian etiquette and something that seems to trip up all but the most seasoned of muzungu’s from time to time. It can be employed for any number of reasons and an inability to read the silence can end up with you facing even more of the stuff – but perhaps for a different reason. In my brief time working in the country, here are some of the sorts of silence I have encountered:

The Silence of Respect: Age and hierarchy are still very firmly rooted in Zambian culture and as the exchange with my friends clearly illustrates even bright young things will dim themselves down from time to time as a sign of respect.

The Silence of Politeness: Of a similar vein to the silence of respect but with a double edge, in many instances Zambians are just too polite to speak up, particularly if what they might want to say would be in conflict with the speaker. This seems to catch muzungu’s like myself out the most frequently and is particularly challenging when using modern communications such as teleconferences.

The Silence of Disagreement: Essentially this is the advanced stage of the silence of politeness but this is where the double edge kicks in. If you have failed to understand the politeness that has kept your audience silent to this point and continue to drift from their point of view, then you can easily find yourself in a world of flat-out disagreement but without a soul to tell you that you have arrived (at least then and there in the meeting). Expect this silent meeting to be followed up by lots of non-action and a little bit of the reason why Zambians are sometimes considered to be “passive aggressive” – you may simply have misread the silence as passive acceptance when it was anything but.

The Silence of Fear: Not something that many of us “free-wheeling, liberal state inhabiting types” have ever had to worry about back home, but in a country where victimisation and bouts of rough justice are quite common both in the community and from different elements of the state, there is sometimes a very real reason to keep you mouth shut even when you are privately outraged by what is being said/going on.

The Silence of Shyness: Something of a universal one this but when there are so many other silences floating about, you can sometimes forget to be on the look out for it or worse still, misconstrue one of the many other messages that your silent audience is trying to give you by simply dismissing them as shy.

The Silence of Being Surrounded by Lots of Noisy Muzungu’s: Sadly, this last silence is something of a by-product of all the other silences. There are several western nations (notably those of a starred and striped variety) where silence in all its forms is abhorred and needs to filled as quickly as possible, usually by repeating a point with greater volume, ferocity or both. Needless to say this can compound the problems being hidden by any or all of the other silences.

On that note I think I should a take a lead from my Zambian brethren and say no more on the subject.

2 Responses to “The Sounds of Silence”
  1. John Vincent says:

    An excellent blog. Nowadays very few have the art of listening to verbal communication, no matter the silent variety.

  2. Barry says:


    I love the post….deafeningly brilliant


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