Why Awkward Silence Is Awkward—Especially on Zoom

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We’re no strangers to awkward or uncomfortable silence, especially in today’s series of work meetings via Zoom. Someone asks, “How is everyone doing?” The other people muster half-smiles and half-grimaces to the camera, awkwardly waiting for their turn to say the generic answer: “Ah, well, I’m good.” Virtual meetings unfold from there as a bumpy road with frequent stop signs coupled with the host’s repeated remarks like “Is that clear? Can you still hear me?” or “Hello! Are you guys still there?”

Real-life meetings and hangouts aren’t that awkward, except when people are unfamiliar with each other. But why are video calls uncomfortable even if we’re meeting people we used to see in the office daily? To answer that question, let’s first delve into the concept of awkward silence in real-life conversations.

Awkward Pauses in Face-to-Face Conversations

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Whether you’re talking to an SEO partner, socializing with friends, or sitting in class secretly wishing the teacher doesn’t ask a question, the fear that you won’t have anything to say can be a source of anxiety.

One study linked our fear of silence to our need for constant background noise. The participants in that study were students, and most of them grew up in a household where the television was always on, even if no one’s watching it. In the time of the study, social media was a massive part of many students’ lives. These participants reported they couldn’t stand the silence in a room; it made them feel anxious.

That feeling of anxiety about silence could translate into everyday conversations. But the quiet itself might not be what makes social situations uncomfortable. Often, it’s because of worrying about the gap in communication. Silent moments happen when two or more people in a conversation simultaneously acknowledge their insecurities. They both blame themselves for the lull in the interaction, making them more anxious about what to say next. Psychologists say beating awkward silences is all about confidence. You need to believe in yourself that you can use that pause to steer the conversation.

It’s also worth noting that culture impacts the concept of uncomfortable silence in real-life conversations. For instance, Japanese people are comfortable with an 8.2-second pause when talking with someone. That’s about twice as long as the usual pauses in Americans’ face-to-face meetings. In Japan, there’s this notion that “a silent man is the best one to listen to,” hence the long pauses in conversations.

Uncomfortable Silence in Virtual Meetings

In real-life conversations, silences can be comfortable if you take it as a cue to respond, steer the conversation in a different direction, or even acknowledge that it’s culturally necessary. However, that concept of comfortable silence doesn’t translate well over our computer screens and Wi-Fi connection.

When we experience delays in communication online, the dynamic of conversations changes significantly. In some instances, people feel they’re being interrupted even if the other person didn’t mean to speak out of turn. Other times, both people stop talking, and no one knows who should continue the conversation. Pauses then become much longer. And of course, as stated above, the awkwardness is heightened if people on a video chat don’t know each other well as they both silently grapple who should lead the talk.

The next time you experience awkward silence on video chat, believe that it’s not entirely your fault. It’s just that the technology—and the fact that comfortable silence or confident pauses don’t translate well online—makes the situation more awkward than it should be.

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