by Olivia Harris

Silence is, by definition, pretty impossible to study because it is a non-event.  But silence is also a learned act that is taught by modeling in social groups. In modern American society there are many taboo topics noted by academics from all across the fields of study: money, death, sex and sexuality, incest, class, medical issues, bodily functions, authority and power.  There is public silence maintained by every individual surrounding each of these that acts on most Americans in a way that Emile Durkheim would describe as functional. By not discussing these “controversial” topics openly, people actively feed into a culture of silence that reinforces a shared cultural ideology.  After all, “it only takes one person to produce speech but it requires the cooperation of many to produce silence.” (Norman Pittenger)

That makes silence a social act, and one inherently involved in power.    “Open” or “public” secrets are topics that are generally known and understood but never discussed.  These secrets are a form of public denial that function to protect the community as a whole and are learned through socialization (Zerubavel, 2006).  Often “not here” or “not now” are the phrases associated with such secrets: nobody is denying the existence of such truths, but each individual utilizes silence as a means to keep it from the public eye.  So some form of conversation (spoken or not) is necessary to promote the act of maintaining a public secret.  These secrets are often covered with talk about everything but the specific secret at hand. Continue reading “Silence”