By Melissa Dahl
February 16, 2018

I heard a story recently about a friend’s former boss. When underlings would go into this person’s office to discuss something like a pay raise or promotion, the boss had a habit of greeting their request with silence. Quiet, tense seconds ticked slowly by, and the joke among the staffers was that they’d often leave having instead volunteered to take a pay cut or demotion — anything to end the excruciating silence.

Awkward silences can feel unbearable. This is a statement that does not exactly need to be backed up by scientific research, but there happens to be some: In 2010, a study led by Namkje Koudenburg of the University of Groningen found that silence in a conversation starts to feel unbearable after about four seconds. There’s so much uncertainty in the air as those silent seconds tick slowly by. Did I say something wrong? Does this person hate me? Am I going to get fired?!

In researching my new book, Cringeworthy, which is about the psychology of awkwardness, I found that uncertainty is a big factor in the unpleasantness of feeling awkward. These are life’s unscripted moments, when there’s no clear indication of what to say or do next. It’s a well-established finding in psychology research that not-knowing tends to make people uneasy. Consider a classic 1960s study, for example, in which people received several rounds of small but still painful shocks of electricity. Little warning bells went off several times throughout the study period, sometimes followed directly by a shock and sometimes not. Overall, people told experimenters that they preferred when the warning was followed by the shock over when it wasn’t. Other research has suggested that people report feeling unpredictable pain more strongly than pain they saw coming, a finding that’s hard not to read metaphorically.

We all react to ambiguity differently. In the 1990s, a pair of psychologists developed something called a “need-for-closure” scale, which measures how much individuals are bothered by uncertainty. Many of the questions are straightforward enough — Do you like structure? Do you dislike unpredictable situations? — that I would think most of us could intuit where we stand on our own, without taking the questionnaire. If you crave tidiness, order and resolution, it’s likely that you have a high need for closure; if, on the other hand, you change your opinion easily, are okay with mystery and messiness and are more open-minded, you likely have a low need for closure. But other, related research has shown that certain situations, especially those that come with stress and time pressure, increase the need for closure even in those of us who mostly don’t mind loose ends.

Which brings us back to my friend’s boss. The downside of really needing closure is that sometimes uncertainty feels so unpleasant, as it often does in salary negotiations, that you’ll make any decision just so that you can move forward in certainty, even if it’s a rash or wrong one. (Hence the joke about the nervous employees suggesting to give themselves a pay cut.)

But it’s worth remembering that if you don’t know what to say or do, there is always the option to do nothing. As my friend’s boss knows, there are times when the ability to withstand awkward silences can practically serve as a superpower. It’s a useful reminder for the shy, the awkward, and the easily tongue-tied: Awkward silences aren’t necessarily a bad thing, depending on how you use them.

For example, Katie Donovan, founder of the consultancy firm Equal Pay Negotiations, is a proponent of the awkward-silence negotiating technique. As she has phrased it, “The first step is to be silent, hush up, or SHUT UP!” If, for example, you are offered a starting salary of $40,000 when you know that the median salary for this position is $48,000, you can say something like this: “Thank you for the offer. I’m a little surprised about the salary, though. Based on my research I would have expected it to be in the $50,000 range.”

It’s a good start; there is no phrase more quietly lethal in the corporate world than “I’m a little surprised.” But it only works if you say this — and then say nothing. During this pause, Donovan explains, the hiring manager is likely trying to work out how serious you are and how much more to offer. “Remember,” Donovan writes, “rarely is an initial job offer made at the maximum salary budgeted. The hiring manager most likely will have the authority to increase the salary during the meeting.” They might not be able to reach the number you’re asking for, but let them tell you that; don’t undercut yourself by saying that for them.

There are other ways to use silence to your advantage. For example: Ask for a moment to think. A few years ago, I got to interview the researcher and best-selling author Brené Brown around the release of her 2015 book Rising Strong. I was struck by how often she did this. She would pause, often for several seconds at a time, in a way that seemed to signal that she was deeply considering her answer. Silence doesn’t have to feel confrontational to be effective.

Studies of the need-for-closure concept have found that there are some ways to manage your discomfort with uncertainty, which might help you hold your ground in a strategic awkward silence both in and beyond the office. In experiments, researchers have found that people become more comfortable with uncertainty when they think they’re going to have to explain or defend their decisions later. I started doing this a while ago, before I realized it had been given the blessing of psychological science. I make a decision, and then I make sure it’s the best one by imagining how I would justify it to someone else. It helps.


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