When Zapotec speakers stop talking during conversations with Spanish speakers in Oaxaca, their silence may signify politeness, respect, or an attempt to avoid conflict from developing. Martina Schrader-Kniffki, in an article published in a recent book about politeness in the Spanish-speaking world, analyzes the nuances of the intentional silences adopted by the Zapotec people when they are conversing with Spanish speakers.

Her research included more than five years of field work, mostly participant observations, in a Zapotec village in Oaxaca. In her article she transcribes verbal interactions and periods of silence in both Spanish and Zapotec language conversations to illustrate her arguments about the culture of polite behavior. She describes cultural differences in the conversational styles of the Zapotec and the Spanish speakers, and emphasizes that politeness is a dynamic phenomenon, is subject to change over time, and is culture-specific. She provides several examples that help develop her theme.

On the impersonal streets of Oaxaca City, the Spanish speakers will pass by one another without offering mutual greetings. In the small Zapotec communities, however, people greet one another as they pass on the street in order to show mutual respect. Talking is more polite than maintaining silence.

She points out that conventions on talking during meals differ in the Spanish speaking and the Zapotec speaking societies. Spanish speakers in Oaxaca City will dine together in order to share ideas, discuss issues, and report on news. Silence at such meals may signify hostility and impoliteness. In contrast, at a meal in a Zapotec community, the food is eaten in silence—that is the polite way to do it. To the Spanish-speaking people, dinner is a time to focus on socializing; to the Zapotec speakers, the meal is all about nutrition and satisfying the need for food.

For the Spanish speakers, an essential element of the meal is to praise the quality of the food. Not to do so would be impolite—an expression of disapproval. In the traditional Zapotec household, cooking reproduces cultural knowledge and it is not a subject for criticism or praise. When Spanish speakers are entertained in Zapotec households, they often make the mistake of praising a meal, which embarrasses and perhaps annoys the hosts.

Differences in the uses of silence also occur in public spaces. While strangers in the city of Oaxaca do not normally exchange greetings or small talk, in shops or supermarkets people do engage in conversations with the clerks. At the large supermarkets, cashiers often engage in friendly conversations as the purchases are totaled and paid for—a kind of politeness that might improve the business of the store and certainly expresses appreciation for the customer.

At weekly outdoor markets or at shops in the smaller, traditional Zapotec villages, however, the conventions are quite different. People reduce their conversations to single words, and they avoid greeting or thanking the merchants. The author argues that this convention may be due to the fact that buying things with money is a relatively new phenomenon. Within their egalitarian society, it is essential to avoid showing off the value of things—Zapotec women will wrap their purchases in a shawl to carry them home so neighbors cannot calculate their worth. The use of money is still treated, to some extent, as a taboo topic, so the act of buying requires special behavioral patterns and silences.

While thanking people for gifts is a normal part of Spanish-speaking Mexican society, in some cases in Zapotec society people do not express their gratitude for gifts. At ritual celebrations in Zapotec communities, citizens are expected to contribute gifts to the family that has assumed the annual duty of organizing a festival. The gift offerings, intended to assist the celebration, are considered social duties and they are accepted by the family in charge of the festival with silence. In other contexts, remaining silent rather than thanking someone for a gift would be quite impolite.

The author indicates that while Mexicans tend to avoid topics of conversation that may touch on known interpersonal conflict situations in order to save face, the Zapotec people tend to engage such subjects directly in their conversations. Silence is not a normal means of avoiding conflict within Zapotec society, but it is an appropriate strategy for avoiding difficulties with Spanish speakers. The Zapotec silence during intercultural contacts is a means of saving face for themselves.

Normal conventions of politeness are similar in both cultures regarding the length of time individual speakers should talk and when they should yield to another person. But sometimes silence can have a negative implication in an inter-cultural conversation. In one incident, a Spanish speaker failed to yield to a Zapotec speaker, as the normal rules of politeness should have signaled him to do. As a result, the Zapotec speaker allowed a lengthy, exaggerated period of silence to develop. He appeared to be dramatizing his distress at the asymmetry of the situation, and chose to express his feelings silently as “an act of impoliteness and an expression of power” (p.322).

One of the most interesting conversations reported in the article is a discussion between a Spanish speaker and some Zapotec-speaking individuals. When the Spanish speaker asked the others to speak Spanish rather than Zapotec, the latter reacted with a silent period lasting 22 seconds. Their silence was not only their way of politely refusing his demand, it was also their way of responding to his earlier requests, reproaches, and accusations. Their silence, however, allowed everyone to save face, an essential part of their thinking. The Spanish speaker was not sure how to respond.

As the Zapotec speakers continued to discuss the situation in their own language, they expressed the idea that they needed to move away from the conflict. Their wording suggested the concept of moving out of the way of someone—such as stepping off the sidewalk to allow an elderly person to pass by. They carried the concept over into a verbal strategy of avoiding discord.

Schrader-Kniffki, Martina. 2007. “Silence and Politeness in Spanish and Zapotec Interactions ( Oaxaca, Mexico).” In Research on Politeness in the Spanish-Speaking World, edited by María Elena Placencia and Carmen García, p.305-332. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum