We have all likely heard about the so-called awkward pause—that moment of silence that, no matter the substance, can tarnish a conversation. But how long exactly does the silence need to endure before becoming quantifiably awkward?
We live an era where just about everything is assessed and measured, and so too has this question related to the length of the awkward pause.
A decade ago, Bill Murphy, Jr. writes in this Inc. article, Namkje Koudenburg of the psychology department at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, convened 162 graduate students and divided them into two groups.
The first group watched a video with a woman making a controversial comment followed by other participants’ reactions. The second group watched the same video with the same woman’s controversial comment. But in this second group, there was a four-second pause between her comment and the other participants’ reactions.
Turns out that these four seconds of silence were all that was needed to dramatically increase negative reactions and emotions. Emotionally intelligent people, Murphy writes, “certainly understand that patience empowers, and there is in fact a statistical, temporal point where comfort gives way to discomfort,” Murphy writes.
How can four seconds ease or increase the discomfort?
Those four seconds of silence are important to understand since they can be used either to ease or increase the discomfort those on the receiving end of a conversation may experience based on whether the pause is constrained within, or actually exceeds, the four second interval.
Ease the discomfort
For the emotionally intelligent communicator seeking to ease discomfort, “when a pause approaches the awkward threshold, they might have planned a way to break it, either with a substantive response, a humorous interjection, or just: ‘Hmmm, let me think about that for a second’,” Murphy reports.
Increase the pause
But the opposite also proves true—and “sometimes awkwardness might be a tactical advantage.” In these cases, Murphy writes, an emotionally intelligent communicator might “let four seconds turn to five, then 10. Let the other side feel the need to interject, and then either repeat what they’ve already said or else even start negotiating against themselves,” he writes.
We are often told that “life all comes down to a few moments.” In critical conversations, this Inc. article demonstrates, those moments might actually be seconds. Four second, to be precise.