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The term "unsaid" refers what is not explicitly stated, what is hidden and/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.[1]


Sociolinguistics points out that in normal communication what is left unsaid is as important as what is actually said[2]—that we expect our auditors regularly to fill in the social context/norms of our conversations as we proceed.[3]

Basil Bernstein saw one difference between the restricted code and the elaborated code of speech is that more would be left implicit in the former than the latter.[4]


In ethnology, ethnomethodology established a strong link between unsaid and axiomatic. Harold Garfinkel, following 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.[5]

Edward T. Hall argued that much cross-cultural miscommunication stemmed from neglect of the silent, unspoken, but differing cultural patterns that each participant unconsciously took for granted.[6]


Luce Irigaray has emphasised the importance of listening to the unsaid dimension of discourse in psychoanalytic practice[7]—something which may shed light on the unconscious phantasies of the person being analysed.[8]

Other psychotherapies have also emphasised the importance of the non-verbal component of the patient's communication,[9] sometimes privileging this over the verbal content.[10] 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".[11]

Cultural examples[edit]

  • Sherlock Holmes is said to have owed his success to his attention to the unsaid in his client's communications.[12]
  • 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".[13]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Robyn Brandenberg, Powerful Pedagogy (2008) p. 104
  2. ^ R. Wardhaugh, An Introduction to Sociolinguistics (2011) p. 310
  3. ^ J. P. Gee/M. Handforthed., The Routledge Handbook of Discourse Analysis (2013) Ch 10
  4. ^ R. Mesthrie, Introducing Sociolinguistics (2009) p. 353
  5. ^ A. Giddens, Positivism and Sociology (1974) p. 72
  6. ^ Edward T. Hall, The Silent Language (1990) p. vii-viii
  7. ^ S. Todd ed., Learning Desire (2013) p. 249
  8. ^ M. Edelson, Language and Interpretation in Psychoanalysis (1984) p. 2
  9. ^ Eric Berne, What Do You Say After You Say Hello? (1974) p. 314-7
  10. ^ Fritz Perls, Gestalt Therapy Verbatim (1970) p. 57-8
  11. ^ Quoted in M. Argyle ed., Social Encounters (1973) p. 133
  12. ^ Edward T. Hall, The Silent Language (1990) p. 33
  13. ^ David Lodge, Small World (1985) p. 265

Further reading[edit]

  • S. L. Olnick (1982). "Meanings beyond Words". International Review of Psycho-Analysis. 9 (4): 461–72.

External links[edit]