Silence and Power

To anyone who studies rhetoric, the power of silence and silencing is not a new subject.  Cheryl Glen has published extensively on the subject, and her book Unspoken: A Rhetoric of Silence provides a comprehensive approach.

Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about silence as power a lot lately.  This comes from a few events, most notably the recent debate between HRC and Trump. It also comes from a discussion I had with my professional writing class about gendered communication in the workplace.  And, an email I received from one of my collaborators on a book project.

Let’s start with the easiest target – the debate. In all fairness, I should admit that I will not vote for Trump. However, I don’t think many experts in politics, public speaking, or rhetoric would dispute that Hilary did a better job. She was more professional and more on target. On the other hand, Trump interrupted Hilary 51 times. Instead, Hilary just looked at the camera and waited her turn.


In response, one woman (E.Van Every) on Twitter posted: “To the men amazed Clinton hasn’t snapped: Every woman you know has learned to do this. This is our life in society. #debatenight” And she’s right.  Women are used to being interrupted, talked over, and silenced by their male counterparts. And at the same time, can any of us deny that by being silent, Hilary won the debate?  By smiling and listening, Hilary looked more presidential.

Maybe we need to address the difference between being silenced and using silence. In the workplace, women are routinely silenced in meetings by their male counterparts.  Even in academic settings, I’ve seen male professors take over panels, dominate Q&A, and monopolize friendly discussions at bars. Even in a the progressive space of Obama’s administration, women were silenced. Obama’s women staffers created a strategy they called “amplification” in which women would repeat the points of women speakers. Being silenced isn’t powerful.

Photo: Washington Post

And yet, a recent email exchange with one of my collaborators for a book project demonstrates how powerful silence can be. She emailed us about an upcoming deadline, but none of us responded immediately. A day later, she emailed and asked, “Ok y’all, I’m starting to feel weird about this. Did you make a decision that I don’t know about?” It turns out we were all just really busy and hoped someone else would answer.  As a result, our silence made her fear the worst.  Our silence had power.

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