Silence is Golden

Anyone who has experience with East Asian students has probably noticed their inclination towards being reticent. Not all, mind you. We have heard or perhaps thought to ourselves about how their silence can negatively impact their language learning or study abroad experience; that their silence is a sign of shyness, inability, or lack of critical thinking. If you read my recent blog post on introversion, you would know that quietness should never be taken as a negative sign – some people, for issues that range from temperament, culture, or genetics, don’t speak as often. Painting with a broad brush, it is safe to assume that East Asia (Japan, China, Korea) appears higher on the introverted spectrum on average. However, this really should not be a problem.

Yet, for many it is. In the West, talking is commensurate with thinking. Getting students to talk is seen as getting students to think. Getting students to talk more is seen as beneficial to the learning process. This can have some serious implications, including how a student is viewed by an instructor, whether they are in a language class or studying physics or geography. The good intentions of these instructors may be to coax the student into verbalizing. Yet, as Kim (2000) shows, this may not always be beneficial.

According to Kim, speaking and thinking have been equated throughout Western history, stemming from Greek civilization, Judeo-Christian and Islamic thought, and even important thinkers such as Watson, Sapir, and Whorf. In traditional East Asian beliefs, speaking and thinking are decidedly not connected. Kim argues that East Asians have a “holistic style of reasoning in which many elements are held at the same time in thought in order to grasp the gestalt of the parts” (p. 830). Westerns hold a “analytic” style of thinking. Certain tasks require certain types of thinking, and verbalization plays different roles in this thinking, from assistance to impairment.

Kim details three experiments to test the relationship between thinking and speaking. They hypothesized that East Asians would be negatively affected by talking while solving tasks whereas European Americans would not. In experiment 1, these two groups of people solved “Advanced Raven’s Progressive Matrices Set II“, tasks that required analytical reasoning and, although non-verbal in nature, tend to be solved in a verbal way. East Asians and European Americans, all of whom were second- or more generation Americans¬† whose dominant language was English participated. Participants were placed in either a control condition where they were given no explicit instructions or a thinking-aloud condition, where the participants was to verbalize their thinking process. The results showed that verbalization did not hinder European Americans while it did negatively impact the performance of East Asians.

Experiment 2 looked at beliefs and cultural practices regarding how talking affects thinking because “cultural differences in how people think might be a potential underlying mechanism for the demonstrated phenomenon” (p. 832) . Participants completed the same tasks and were divided into a control (silence – explicitly told not to talk, even if it is their nature tendency) and a “talking” group. They were also given a set of questionnaires about their beliefs, practices (e.g. parenting style), and self-perceptions. Results showed that, again, only East Asians had negative effects from talking. Survey results showed that more European American participants equated talking with good thinking than East Asians did (a statistically significant result). European Americans also had more verbal cultural practices. From correlation analyses, there was a significant connection between what people believe and how they think, and this was also connected with how talking affects thinking.

The final experiment was somewhat the opposite of experiment 1, hypothesizing not that talking would impair East Asians but that not talking (articulatory suppression) would impair European Americans. Participants completed the same Matrices as in experiments 1 and 2. First, everyone completed the first 10 in silence. Then, they were placed into different conditions: thinking-aloud condition and an articulatory suppression condition where participants were asked to say the alphabet aloud while working. In silence, there were no significant effects. Under the thinking-aloud condition, European Americans’ performance was not impacted. And under the last condition, saying the alphabet repeatedly, European Americans were negatively impaired but not East Asians. According to Kim (p. 836):

These results provide support for the idea that European Americans tend to process cognitive information more verbally than East Asian Americans. European Americans only needed to vocalize their thoughts when they were thinking aloud, and it was not
necessary to take the extra step of conversion from thoughts to words. In contrast, it seems that East Asian Americans needed to engage in an extra task of transforming their thoughts to words and did not perform as well as in silence.

It’s clear from this research that silence, rather than being a mere cultural attribute, or even worse, seen as a fault in one’s personality, it is actually an important cognitive mechanism informed by culture and belief (and thus not likely to change). Kim (p. 839) states that:

The findings of this research should lead to a greater appreciation of the value of tolerance for others with different ways of being, and the importance of developing multicultural places in which people from diverse cultural backgrounds can comfortably exist and adjust to different expectations without experiencing a sense of inadequacy.

The practical implication of this is not imposing a set of cultural beliefs on others, students included. More specifically, working with international students, we have to accept that silence does not equal inability and therefore appreciate or perhaps even build in opportunities for silence when tasks require deep thinking.

And Kim stressed that this should not be true only of East Asians but of all others, and not just for talking. It is important that we check our assumptions about what it means to be intelligent, enthusiastic, or participating because these traits – traits teachers value – are expressed differently due to culture.


Kim, H. S. (2002). We talk, therefore we think? A cultural analysis of the effect of talking on thinking. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 83(4), 828.

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