August 24, 2006

The communicative power of silence

While driving around yesterday, I caught the tail-end of this piece on All Things Considered. At first I could only hear enough of what was being said to figure out that it was a story about the planetary status of Pluto, something we've all been reading about here on Language Log (for more and less language-related reasons). So I began to listen more closely, and this is what I heard.

Robert Siegel is interviewing "Kepler College professor and astrologer Robert Hand" -- the piece is entitled "Astrologers Join Debate of Pluto's Planetary Status". But I don't figure this out until the third sentence of Hand's reply to Siegel; I have to admit that I was completely thrown off by the subtle distinction Hand makes between planets not being capable of indicating what a person can do vs. what a person should do in order to achieve some goal.

But the most interesting bit, in my opinion, is how much information is communicated by the long silence toward the end of Hand's reply. (The clip really must be heard to fully appreciate this.)

Siegel: You know, one of our listeners heard our correspondent David Kestenbaum's piece yesterday about this controversy, and sent us an e-mail saying that he had had his chart done some years ago, and the position of Pluto led the astrologer to conclude that he would never marry. Therefore, he wonders whether indeed that forecast might be rescinded based on the new status of Pluto, should it change.

Hand: It's not necessary to rescind that forecast; it should never have been made. No planet is capable of indicating absolutely that a person can't get married. All a planet can do is indicate what a person has to do in order to get married. [Siegel: Aha.] And sometimes that requires so much work on the part of a person that they're not likely to do it. But it isn't actually the planet that's preventing it, it's the person's own inclinations. I consider a forecast like that to be malpractice. [Silence: 3.6 secs.] And I have a lot of company.

Siegel: Well, Mr. Hand, thank you very much for talking with us. [Hand: You're welcome.] Robert Hand is an astrologer who spoke to us from his home in Northern Virginia just outside Washington D.C.

What do you think is being communicated by this long silence? Submit your answer here.

Posted by Eric Bakovic at August 24, 2006 11:24 AM