The Spiral of Silence and Selective Mutism

Posted: November 7, 2010 in Analysis, Communication
Tags: , , ,

Elisabeth Noelle-Neumann (1984) posits in the theory of spiral of silence that people who consider themselves as minority, because of fear of isolation, have the tendency to keep their opinion to their selves when it contrasts that of the public’s opinion. There is power in public opinion as there is power in that fear of isolation to keep individuals silent. This theory has critical value in running the state of affairs of institutions within the bounds of democracy.

The contexts in which the theory applies vary from mass communication to group and interpersonal communication. But because of its political context, the theory is likely ignored by pedagogues to explain the silence in the classroom discourse. Yet, there is an implication in this theory to explain why students tend to be silent during classroom interaction. Considering the cultural meaning of silence contextualized in the classroom interaction, a teacher can then be mindful of what the students are saying when they are not saying anything at all.

I am silent when I’m thinking. I am also silent when my mind is drifting away or when I don’t want to think anything anymore. I am silent when I am tired of thinking. I am silent when I am bored. I am silent when I want to calm myself down. I am silent when I don’t want to listen. I am silent when I don’t want to speak. I am silent when I am hurt. I am silent when I everyone else is noisy. I am silent when I am seriously at work and I don’t want anybody else to disturb me. I am silent when I can’t either say yes or no. But sometimes my silence means a silent yes, like when I just feel compelled to say yes, even when I want to say no. I am silent I have no idea to share. I am silent when I don’t want others to reap from my wonderful ideas.

Those are various situations when I tend to be silent. It is hard to predict what silence really means when there are no other details or cues that could help an individual to understand what it is telling. Those are my perspectives, and I am not sure whether those perspectives are also shared by my students in the class, or by other individuals.

When I discuss things and share personal experiences to my class, I find them usually silent. But when I drag into prolonged lectures without having them participate, they are no longer silent. Instead, they get into small talks. There are moments in the class when students have lots of questions, so I have to be silent in order to listen to them. With that at least I can give them a fitting answer. However, reflecting on my insights of my silent experiences warrants me that aside from being able to listen, to be calmy soothed and to think, silence is loaded with a lot of negative stuffs.

Silence could mean shutting oneself down from engaging with another. Its like way of spacing out, getting off tangent from the discourse. Intently, not speaking or not doing anything is silence that signifies protest or discontent with what is being heard. There is a construct we understand as silent protest. Silence is a way to express disagreement or coerced agreement. Silence can mean being muted. But that time of being silent can be an avenue to process and ponder on the situation.

The feeling of being hurt, anxious or non-motivated are also negative affects. Only with a conscious mind and positive drive that one could perhaps overcome these negativity, that should come from oneself. I had one very smart pupil who happened to demonstrate selective mutism in the classroom. I say she’s smart because she can complete her work text and all other writing activities that we had with very high scores. But she never speaks in the class. For several terms she was under my tutelage, I never heard her speak a word. She could write answers on the board, nod if she meant yes, or tilt her head if she meant no.

To involve her, I had to reconstruct the questions I would ask her, limiting them to yes-no questions. She could hear well. Outside the classroom I caught her once talking with her classmate. She used to talk a lot in the classroom, until one teacher in her regular school scolder her in front of the class because of her talkativeness. From then on, she would not speak in the class anymore. Her silence spiraled to selective mutism, a personal choice she made in response to a traumatic experience.

Silence is a self-construct and a socially-shared construct. Those socially shared construct are many and vary from one person to another. Hence, silence can not be immediately understood or underscored to mean one thing. It needs verification from the silent individual. Silence as a human behavior is a response to stimuli.

In the illustration on selective mutism, it is clear that we use silence as a response to a situation. Out of fear of being embarassed we rather be silent, even though our head our teeming with ideas that we can share. Because we want to be in sync with others and we want to keep that relationship going through constant communication, moments of silence are just hard to decipher. But we should remember that silence is saying something.

When interacting individuals no longer share a word or two with one another, it means something. A relationship may be maintained at one level, but in another it is broken. Tension and conflict bring this gap in communication in conventional relationships. However, relationships must be understood in proper contexts. Such as that of private or personal context, and public or professional context of relationships.

One school authority approached me about something she expects from a younger group she works with. She yearns that those young people age 15-20 would share their selves to her, like what a kid would do with a mom. She expects that they feel at home with her, and treat her like their mom at a personal level. They don’t because there is a cultural gap between them. These young people have their own worlds that they can share with others who have similar experiences, but not with someone else older than them or those who they identify to have authority. Aside from that, the group is going well in meeting its objectives. They chose not share their personal lives to someone in authority, simply because it is their personal lives. It would be intruding if that is imposed.

In the same way, personal attachments can be problematic to maintaining professional relationships. Feelings are personal. Psychology understands the rationality in human emotions. They are expressed as personal affect. Their meaning is something else that society constructs. As feelings, they must be understood as is, and it should not be considered troublesome to professional goals unless it affects the organization’s development.

Because of misunderstanding in meaning of feelings, people tend to be silent to avoid complicated things. In reality though, professional relationships are established by keeping good personal relationships.  In between individuals of different positions in power, while one is in authority and the other party is a mere subordinate, silence is a pathological message. Between idnividuals the silence of the one without power spirals because of the strenght of the other in power. Here, I substitute the number of people involved in the public opinion to the power of the authority to mute others.  Prolonging this silence could really be troublesome in the future. It spirals. Those unwanted feelings may grow so they  must be desired to be processed.

Politically, the Spiral of Silence theory explains how the public in the Philippines reacted during the Martial Law Years. In those times, the one in power controlled the media and dictated the dissimination of information. Public opinion in government-controlled media presented those only that are supportive of the administration. Democracy was curtailed and the people remained in silence. Law enforced the harshest to those who would oppose the administration, and all power is used to silence the opposition.

However in those silent years, the muted group grew in number. They established connections with each other and organized groups in the underground to contest dictatorship. It took several years. As silence got stronger, the dictator held power like a ticking time bomb. When the silence was understood well enough by the people, it broke out thirsty for democracy and freedom.

  1. skysenshi says:

    Was just reviewing this today and it reminded me of another theory in relation to information processing, Social Loafing in computer-supported cooperative/collaborative work. Incidentally, Spiral of Silence belongs to the Cybernetic Tradition, which is also under information processing. 🙂

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