Keith Basso wrote an interesting essay ‘To Give Up on Words: Silence in Apache Culture’ that throws some interesting light on how we might use silence in conflict. Thanks to Matt Benjamin for bringing this article to my attention.
The Western Apache whom Keith Basso studied typically use it for the following situations (and he subsequently found the Navajo had a similar pattern of using silence):
- When meeting a stranger: waiting sometime, perhaps a few days even, to get a sense of the other person, before talking to them in a group situation. Introductions are not made by third parties, as this would prematurely force the interaction.
- Courtship when youngsters are getting to know each other
- When long absent relatives arrive or children return from distant college, and have much to say about what has happened to them, which is listened to in silence
- When extreme anger has been vented at someone, they respond with silence
- During mourning, silence is used to respect those who have lost a loved one
- When a healing ceremony is in progress
In his view, in Western Apache culture this absence of verbal communication is associated with social situations in which the status of participants is ambiguous, where role expectations lose their applicability, and the illusion of predictability in social interactions is lost. So in sum it is a response to uncertainty and unpredictability in social relations.
Adapting this to our own conflict situations might suggest that we keep silent more in conflict and even listen; and if this is too uncomfortable in our culture, suggest an adjournment, which is different from walking out because it is time bounded and implies the dialogue will continue at some stage. Adjournments are not acts of aggression and I suggest they might play more of a role in relationships and marriages.
See below another form of Apache silence unrelated to the above 🙂