This week I listened to a fascinating podcast interview with author and journalist Gillian Tett about her new book Anthro-Vision: A New Way to See in Business and Life.

The book is about what we can learn if we take useful concepts and methods normally hidden away within the fairly obscure academic discipline of anthropology, and apply them to ourselves and our ways of working.

One of the new-to-me concepts that she mentioned was the idea of ‘social silences’. These are the things that aren’t talked about in a society or organisation, the things that are there but are regarded as taboo, or too embarrassing or irrelevant to talk about.

Because they’re not talked about, they’re not challenged or debated. They’re just tacitly accepted.

This can lead to trouble. Not just through ‘groupthink’ leading to bad decisions, but actual harm, both to human beings and to the bottom line.

For example, before the #MeToo movement, sexual harassment in the workplace wasn’t much talked about. Convicted sexual predator Harvey Weinstein was active for decades, and his behaviour privately known about among leading movie industry figures but not publicly mentioned, until the New York Times broke the story in 2017.

In today’s changed environment, any corporation that with a sexual harassment problem that is still trying to pretend it doesn’t exist will likely face lawsuits and a loss of investor confidence.

A slightly deeper dive into social silence

In various articles and interviews, Gillian Tett refers to the idea of social silences in the work of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who referred to them as ‘doxa (an ancient Greek word meaning common belief, contrasted in classical rhetoric with episteme or knowledge. We see it in words like ‘orthodox’ and ‘heterodox’).

‘Doxa’ are the learned but unconsciously-held beliefs and values in a social system, which are taken as self-evident universals. They’re contrasted with ‘opinion’, which is the areas that are up for discussion, and which can therefore change and evolve.

Bourdieu says that social silences tend to favour current social arrangements. It suits the people in charge to have them remain silent, because beliefs and ideas that can be discussed are open to change.

It bears mentioning that Gillian Tett was one of the very few people to predict the 2008 financial crash. She suggests that the crash happened largely because of the silence in the City of London and financial markets generally about the human effects of increasingly complex financial products and the flaws in the algorithms used by ratings agencies.

At the time her warnings were largely ignored, and even denounced as ‘scaremongering’. They were not within the bounds of ‘acceptable’ things to talk about. We’re all still living with the consequences of those warnings being ignored.

How you can use the idea of ‘social silence’

So, what are the practical implications of the idea of ‘social silences’ for understanding our workplaces and ourselves better?

  • At the collective level, Gillian Tett suggests that to gain a fuller understanding of any social system – a corporation, a management team, a school, a family – we need to look not just at what’s being said, but also what isn’t being said.

    What are people not talking about? What subjects are not up for discussion – shut down, dismissed as boring or irrelevant, or always made light of? What is assumed to be a given – natural law, or human nature?
  • If you’re leading a team or organisation, do you wonder what your subordinates are talking about when they’re not in your presence? You could be missing out on valuable information – especially if you’re a victim of what Daniel Goleman calls ‘CEO Disease’, where people are scared to tell you anything other than what they think you want to hear.
  • At the level of personal development, you could ask yourself (or your coach could ask you): What are you not talking about? What feels uncomfortable to think about? What do other people seem to deal with OK that you don’t want to deal with? This could be a useful way of uncovering limiting beliefs (NLP practitioners might want to think about social silences in relation to modal operators of possibility and necessity).
  • Outlining their idea of double-loop learning, Chris Argyris and Donald Schön suggest that deep change and evolution comes through reflecting on our values and motivations, so that we don’t just find more effective ways to get what we want, we re-evaluate what we want in the first place. 

    We can do this as organisations and communities just as we can as individuals. In either case, we can start to move from a culture of ‘advocacy’ (trying to force or persuade others to do what we want) to learning from other people and enriching our own mental maps.

    Enquiring into social silences in our work and personal lives may help us to do that.

Would you like to help teams break out of the bounds of previous thinking and be more open to hearing different perspectives? The ‘Wholeness Principle’ in Appreciative Inquiry says that listening to diverse voices in an organisation makes change more likely to succeed by incorporating multiple viewpoints and knowledge – as well as building commitment by engaging everyone affected by a change in determining what that change should be.

Join the next Practical Appreciative Inquiry course, starting soon.

Social Silences: What Isn’t Being Talked About In Your Organisation?

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One thought on “Social Silences: What Isn’t Being Talked About In Your Organisation?

  • I feel that what’s not being spoken about is of immense importance, the reason why it’s avoided is the huge consequences it may yield. Interesting topic, thank you.

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