Unsaid

high-context

body language

The term unsaid refers what is not explicitly stated, what is hidden or implied in the speech of an individual or a group of people. The unsaid may be the product of intimidation; of a mulling over of thought; or of bafflement in the face of the inexpressible. Sociolinguistics points out that in normal communication what is left unsaid is as important as what is actually said — that we expect our auditors regularly to fill in the social context/norms of our conversations as we proceed.

British sociologist Basil Bernstein described two types of speech: restricted and elaborated code. The former is suitable for insiders who share assumptions and understanding on the topic, whereas the latter is more explicit, more thorough, and does not require the listener to read between the lines.

Study of the unsaid and axiomatic is integral to ethnology, a subfield of anthropology specializing in ethnic groups. UCLA ethnomethodologist Harold Garfinkel, following French sociologist Emile Durkheim, stressed that in any given situation, even a legally binding contract, the terms of agreement rest upon the 90% of unspoken assumptions that underlie the visible (spoken) tip of the interactive iceberg. Anthropologist Edward T. Hall argued that much cross-cultural miscommunication stems from neglect of the silent, unspoken, but differing cultural patterns that each participant unconsciously takes for granted.

French cultural theorist Luce Irigaray has emphasised the importance of listening to the unsaid dimension of discourse in psychoanalytic practice — something which may shed light on the unconscious fantasies of the analysand. Other psychotherapies have also emphasised the importance of the nonverbal component of the patient’s communication, sometimes privileging this over the verbal content. Behind all such thinking stands Freud’s dictum: ‘no mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his fingertips…at every pore.’

Sherlock Holmes is said to have owed his success to his attention to the unsaid in his client’s communications. In ‘Small World,’ the heroine cheekily excuses her lack of note-taking to a Sorbonne professor by saying: ‘it is not what you say that impresses me most, it is what you are silent about: ideas, morality, love, death, things…Vos silences profonds.’

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