I live in Parel, a noisy area of Mumbai. But over the past three months, during the Covid-19 lockdown, an unusual silence has reigned in this central part of India’s commercial capital. Very few vehicles honk and pass by, crowds on roads have thinned out, local trains are not running, and shops are largely shut. Amidst this silence, I have even had the pleasure of listening to a few birds chirping outside my balcony, which is largely unheard of in this bustling metropolis.

All this has made me reflect on the concept of silence. Is silence lonely, or is it peaceful, or is it just beautiful? Is it natural, or is it forced? What really does silence mean to people? Does it mean different things at different times?

Quite coincidentally, during this period of silence, I also read an extraordinary new book titled You’re not listening , written by Kate Murphy, a versatile contributor to the New York Times . Her excellent book is all about how, as a society, we have forgotten to listen, and what we can do to really listen to others.

In one of the stories in this book, the author describes her visit to a furniture store in Texas, where she sat observing the store’s top salesman trying to conclude the sale of a dining table, to an elderly couple. They had completed all the browsing, and were now seized by a final bout of indecision, on whether or not to buy. The couple sat in silence, and the salesman did absolutely nothing to disturb them. No comment, no suggestion, he just let the silence flow.

At the end of ten minutes, the couple piped up, and said they would take the table, and a few other pieces of furniture too ! The top salesman later told the author that he had learnt to be quiet at such intense points of final decision-making. Also, had he said something to disturb the silence at that point, the couple may not have bought anything at all!

Silence of decision-making

To me, this beautiful story is an example of one of the silences that marketers should learn to respect — the silence of decision-making. When consumers are on the verge of making purchase decisions, particularly of a high-value product or service, they may tend to go into silence. This sort of silence helps us wrestle with ourselves one last time, on whether we really need the product, whether we need to spend so much, and whether we are taking the right call. And, in turn, the conclusion of this internal wrestling match makes us far more comfortable in going ahead with the purchase. Learning when to speak, and when to keep silent, is an art that the best retailers are masters of.

Silence of listening

Yet another important form of silence is one which leads to deep listening. Consumer insight is very important to marketers, in shaping their offerings for the future, or in discovering how consumers are responding to their products, pricing or communication. To listen carefully, marketers need to ask the right questions, and thereafter keep a true and open silence, in listening deeply to the answers. Only then will the real views and the true issues surface. The tribe of marketers is not naturally given to silence, because we typically like to speak more than we listen. But then, how do you gain insight if you don’t shut up and listen?

Silence of satisfaction

A happier variant is the silence of satisfaction — the deep and satisfied silence that comes after a wonderful lunch or dinner, for instance. There are moments when consumers go very silent because they are happy, or satiated, or both. Marketers should learn to capture these beautiful moments of silence, and the accompanying emotions, in various touch points of their brands, including communication or packaging — because this can resonate deeply with consumers who have felt exactly that way, so many times. Of course, capturing such nuances of silence is an art, which requires human insight, skill and effort.

Silence of rejection

When consumers are very involved with their brands, they speak about them, praise them, complain about their shortcomings, and, in general, engage with them a great deal. Marketers hear a lot of chatter on social media or at customer service touch points, and this is generally very good, because it shows the high levels of customer interest in their products.

But when consumers reject a product, or totally give up on a brand, they tend to go totally silent, because their involvement has just ended. So, marketers should watch out carefully for consumers or customer groups who go silent, because it can give them valuable indicators about something going seriously wrong.

Silence of peace

Yet another sort of silence that consumers continue to desire and pursue is the silence of peace, in our constantly noisy and wandering minds. This is why meditation apps, which offer exactly this type of silence, are becoming so popular. No wonder the Headspace meditation app. has already notched up 30 million downloads and more than 1 million paying subscribers across 190 countries. And there are many more such purveyors of peace, with evocative names such as Calm and Wave. Are there other offerings that marketers can think of, that help provide consumers with the silence of peace, which is such a big and emerging need?

Look closely, and you will find many other types of silence too, that people constantly seek — for instance, the secure silence of companionship, or even the beautiful silence of the dawn. If marketers listen to the sounds of silence carefully enough, this will constantly throw up opportunities that cut through all the noise. There is great merit in giving silence the importance it deserves.


Harish Bhat is Brand Custodian, Tata Sons. These are his personal views. bhatharish@hotmail.com