The spiral of silence and academic vitality

Teresita Tanhueco-Tumapon

Teresita Tanhueco-Tumapon

THE usual academic structure in Philippine HEI’s has college deans working with department chairs. The latter work with program heads who, usually, are senior faculty members assigned to supervise the degree programs for the specializations under a department. Thus, the chair of the Department of Language, Literature and Communications, say, with over 30 or more students in each specialized area is assisted by a program head to whom faculty members report. General education/liberal arts teachers report usually to the Arts and Sciences academic departments.

An academic dean, as chief executive of his/her respective college, is the micro-officer of the vice-president for academics. The latter has the educational accountability for all the academic programs in the HEI, so has the dean, for a specific college. As such, the dean who is likely to have the best knowledge about the college, leads in initiatives that translate into the enhanced quality, attractiveness and responsiveness of college programs to contemporary society, the introduction of new programs and other innovations. The dean leads and guides all the human resources of the college, forges partnerships, generates goodwill for the college and its stakeholders; ensures these are done within the ambit of the institution’s, as well as that of the college’s philosophy, mission, vision and goals, and consistent with the institution’s policy and practice.

However, a lack of role clarity may spawn conflict. Role partners – the dean and department chairs or the department chairs/program heads and the faculty members – may not see eye to eye. With a diverse group of individuals, varying in disciplines, religious orientation, age, gender, experience, etc – there is a need to spur and sustain synergy of such diverse talents. My study 36 years ago on department chairs and their role partners revealed that conflict between department chairs/program heads and the faculty members, or that between deans and department chairs is more incident particularly in dispensing budgets. I bet that the situation may not be far off different even to this day.

How would our major value of “hiya” and our high power distance orientation bear on social relationships?
Would these cultural factors generate a social climate conducive to harmoniously working together to pursue institutional and college thrusts? How does the spiral of silence work on a typical Filipino in a social group?

Following the normal curve, a typical Filipino refers to one whose personality characteristics fall on the mean. One on the left side of the mean tends to be “too Filipino;” one other on the right, tends to be “too deviant from the typical.”

An example would be meekness of the one on the left side and assertiveness of the other on the right side, of the normal curve. With what we mean by the typical Filipino, we proceed with the spiral of silence theory.

The Spiral of Silence theory purports that “people often feel the need to conceal their opinions, views, preferences when these fall within the minority of a group.” This theory explains that people are likely to cover up or change their opinions when they are among others, such as in meetings, groups, etc., especially when they are unsure if the majority share their opinion. To reduce the perceived social difference, people either minimize or emphasize this by adjusting the context of their speech, vocal patterns and gestures. Those who feel that what they say is not valued, especially by their significant others (their dean/chair or program head, or a colleague close to these superiors), will feel isolated. As theorist Elizabeth Noelle-Neumann says, they will feel marginalized. The “more marginalized one becomes (feels), the less one speaks and so spiral into a fully marginal position.”

The spiral of silence “emphasizes the horizontal pressures that the threat of isolation and corresponding fear of isolation exert to keep people from being open and honest about their opinions.” Within groups, the spiral of silence “tends to restrict open and honest discussion essential to organizational improvement.” When we consider that the vitality of the college springs from the willingness of everyone to share innovative ideas, or promptly caution on possible problems, ventilate one’s feelings about certain pronouncements, etc. – without reprisals – we will appreciate why we, in any organization, should avoid the spiral of silence to settle on its members. How do we prevent this?

Vitality comes with facilitating common understanding to resolve differences, developing supportive and productive work relationships – free-wheeling communication among one’s group members regardless of seniority or status – all in the best interest of the college as an integral part of the institution. Filipino sensitivity to rebuff by a role partner of a higher status washes away commitment. The typical Filipino shrinks in silence especially if there’s fear losing a teaching load, being left out of a research project, or being denied some privilege; in brief, if he/she thinks he/she is marginal.

The theory explains why during meetings, some opposing issues are not ventilated but instead, are discussed after the meetings, outside their college or departments, even finding their way in social media. Typical Filipino timidity may lose the college some interesting insights, which otherwise could have been turned to meaningful initiatives.

When people feel that their idea is shared only with a minority or with no one else, they will feel a certain sense of isolation. They will tend to conceal their views; enthusiasm spirals downward into silence. Lesson: “Create opportunities for the parties to validate the concerns of each other.” Creative tension gives room for “the recognition and constructive expression of differences.” Role partners shouldn’t miss this.
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Teresita Tanhueco-Tumapon, PhD, one of the Philippines’ most accomplished educators and institutional management experts, heldtop academic positions at Xavier University (Ateneo de Cagayan) before heading chartered institutions. She studied not only in the topmost universities in the Philippines but also in Germany, Great Britain and Japan. An internationalization consultant on call, she is copy editor of the Liceo journals, and professorial lecturer at the Graduate Studies of Liceo de Cagayan University (in Cagayan de Oro City). Awards include a Lifetime Professional AchievementAward from the Commission on Higher Education.


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  1. Madam Tumapon, if there’s anything that I should throw away it’s the spiral of silence that inhibits,stalks,or stifles most students or even professionals in the matter of speaking up or voicing out their views, dissent, or sentiments on various issues or concerns. Well, your article very succinctly discusses the primary reasons why people find themselves spiralling into the vortex of silence. I would like to add, however, that the patent or manifest deficiency in communication competence or the sole lack of it freezes one to ventilate his thoughts. The hiya attitude stems from a person’s inability to express himself intelligibly, effectively, cogently, and clearly in public or in groups. His status or his cultural upbringing does not at all matter if the person believes he has the power or the ability to speak. The ability to speak is empowering and intensifies self-confidence. And it’s a pity that students or even some PhD holders seem not have developed in themselves speaking skills. This brutal fact explains why in the academe academic vitality is hardly visible or felt. Madam Tumapon is absolutely right in saying that students or even the academician should be intensely encouraged to engage in free wheeling discussions. Fluency or eloquence in the use of language is important in discussions but making it a condition to qualify one in joining a discussion will discourage the less eloquent from joining. To address this problem, a proper balance in the treatment of both the eloquent and the not so eloquent should be done. But training students to be eloquent should be a major concern of the academe. Madam Tumapon, wouldn’t you be honored and pleased if you see or hear your students speaking well in public? To me this is a concrete sign of academic vitality-one that is heard, practised, and spread and not kept frozen in the timid minds of students. I shall be glad to get your comment on my reaction to this article of yours which I read with much fun. Thank you. I am Maximo Tumbali, a native of Tuguegarao City, a lover of philosophy, and a free lance writer.