Gestures and symbols
One widely recognized symbolic gesture of silence consists of a forefinger laid vertically across the lips. Comic emphasis is achieved with a gesture of thumb and finger zippering the mouth shut. For the cultural misunderstanding that made Harpocrates an emblem of silence from Roman times.
In the Western cultures, it is sometimes difficult to interpret the message being sent by a person being silent (i.e. not speaking). It can mean anger, hostility, disinterest, or any number of other emotions. Because of this, people in Western cultures feel uneasy when one party is silent and will usually try their best to fill up the silence with small talk.
The Western Apaches use silence during times of uncertainty or anger in the way most people in Western cultures would be vocal. The goal is to observe and anticipate what the other party is going to do.
In music, the symbols instructing players to be silent are rests. More substantial silences, lasting several seconds, occasionally appear in musical works. There are a very few examples of completely silent musical works; the most famous example is John Cage's composition 4'33", which consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of apparent silence, although the composer's intent was to draw in to the piece all the random indeterminate sounds of the audience and their environment. Cage had this to say about silence:
- "Until I die there will be sounds. And they will continue following my death. One need not fear about the future of music."
Argumentative silence is the rhetorical practice of saying nothing when an opponent in a debate would expect something to be said. Poorly executed, it can be very offensive, like refusing to answer a direct question. However, well-timed silence can completely throw an opponent and give the debater the upper hand.
An argument from silence (Latin: argumentum ex silentio) is an argument based on the assumption that someone's silence on a matter suggests ("proves" when a logical fallacy) that person's ignorance of the matter. In general, ex silentio refers to the claim that the absence of something demonstrates the proof of a proposition.
The "right to silence" is a legal protection enjoyed by people undergoing police interrogation or trial in certain countries. The law is either explicit or recognized in many legal systems. Violation of the right to quiet enjoyment is a common law tort.
A silent mind, freed from the onslaught of thoughts and thought patterns, is both, a goal and an important step in spiritual development. Inner silence is understood to bring one in contact with the divine or the ultimate reality of this moment. All religious traditions imply the importance of being quiet and still in mind and spirit for transformative and integral spiritual growth to occur. In Christianity, there is the silence of contemplative prayer such as Centering prayer and Christian meditation; in Islam, there are the wisdom writings of the Sufis who insist on the importance of finding silence within. In Buddhism, the descriptions of silence and allowing the mind to become silent are implied as a feature of spiritual enlightenment. In Hinduism, including the teachings of Advaita Vedanta and the many paths of yoga, teachers insist on the importance of silence for inner growth. In Quakerism, silence is an actual part of worship services and a time to allow the divine to speak in the heart and mind.
A common way to remember a tragic accident and to remember the victims or casualties of such an event is a commemorative silence. This usually means one or more "minutes of silence", in which one is supposed to not speak, but instead remember and reflect on the event. A commemorative silence may be held at a workplace, a school, and similar institutions. Sometimes a government will advertise a commemorative silence for a specific period at a specific time, which everybody are encouraged (but not forced) to honor. One such example is after the events of 911, when many governments around the world announced 3 minutes of silence in respect of the victims of the event.
Effects on humans and animals
Prolonged silence can often affect a person's state of mind, causing them to hear things and talk to themselves to break the silence. Most people find silence uncomfortable, and to the extreme, unbearable. In modern society, especially in the western society, when people are meeting and talking to each other, people often start talking nonsense to skip moments of silence. People seem to have the same feeling all over the world, - however silence seems to be much more appreciated in the eastern world (China etc.) That is one of the reasons why some people seek answers in eastern religions.
- "Those who know do not speak; Those who speak do not know." (Lau Tzu)
Feelings of loneliness with uncomfortable silence is easier in early life, but most people have roughly the same experience throughout their whole life. Most people often have problems finding words to say, but also many people have no problem finding things to say, and might never have this feeling at all.
In labs, animals that have been subject to a total lack of noise have shown signs of behavioral changes and aggression.
- "The very best refutation of their false accusations was the Master's calm and majestic silence."
- Jesus taught his followers that, when they had made their prayers to the Father, they should remain for a time in silent receptivity to afford the indwelling spirit the better opportunity to speak to the listening soul. The spirit of the Father speaks best to man when the human mind is in an attitude of true worship. We worship God by the aid of the Father's indwelling spirit and by the illumination of the human mind through the ministry of truth. Worship, taught Jesus, makes one increasingly like the being who is worshiped. Worship is a transforming experience whereby the finite gradually approaches and ultimately attains the presence of the Infinite.