The Effect of Silence on the Human Communication System

  • Anthony U. Utulu School of Communication and the Arts, Regent University, VA, USA
  • David Bello Splash FM, Ibadan, Nigeria
Keywords: Communication systems, Nigerians, Silence, Fulani herders, Crisis, Interpretation


Every communication encounter primarily starts because initiators aim to inform and influence others. Silence is a form of nonverbal communication that can be deployed by those communicating. Since nonverbal communication complements the verbal form of communication, it is expected that it is effectively used to enhance the sender-receiver’s communication gains. This paper investigated if leaders’ silence affects public perception, interpretation, and the meaning assignment to a communicated message, using the former Nigerian President, Muhammadu Buhari, and the Nigerian public as cases. It adopted a qualitative approach-an in-depth interview method, using an interview guide as the instrument for data collection. The data analyzed showed that adopting silence as a form of communication, especially during a crisis, harms the human communication experience. Buhari’s silence toward Fulani herders’ attacks affected how the masses perceived, interpreted, and assigned meaning to his action. It allowed conspiracy theories to thrive as public opinion showed that his silence encouraged the herders’ nefarious actions.


Download data is not yet available.


Metrics Loading ...


1. Ajibefun, M. B. (2018). Social and economic effects of the menace of Fulani herdsmen crises in Nigeria. Journal of Educational and Social Research, 8(2), 133-139.
2. Akinyetun, T. (2016). Staff to gun: Fulani herdsmen in Nigeria. Asian Journal of Multidisciplinary Studies, 4(8), 38 – 44.
3. Aupers, S. (2020). Decoding mass media/encoding conspiracy theory. Routledge handbook of conspiracy theories. First Edition. Routledge.
4. Bello, A. S. (2013). Herdsmen and farmers conflicts in North-Eastern Nigeria: Causes, repercussions, and resolutions. Academic Journal of Interdisciplinary Studies, 2(5), 29–139.
5. Benoit, W. L. (2013). Image repair theory and corporate reputation. In The Handbook of Communication and Corporate Reputation. First Edition. Carroll, C. E. (Editor). John Wiley & Sons Inc.
6. Chiaburu, D. S., Lorinkova, N. M., & Van Dyne, L. (2013). Employees’ social context and change-oriented citizenship: A meta-analysis of leader, coworker, and organizational influences. Group & Organization Management, 38, 291–333.
7. Cikotić, S. (2021). Leadership in complex situations. In: Erçetin, Ş. Ş., Açıkalın, Ş. N., Vajzović, E. (Editors), Chaos, complexity and leadership. Springer Proceedings in Complexity. Springer, Cham.
8. Comfort, L. K., Kapucu, N., Ko, K., Menoni, S., & Siciliano, M. (2020). Crisis decision-making on a global scale: Transition from cognition to collective action under threat of COVID −19. Public Administration Review, 80(4), 616–622.
9. Coombs, W. T. (2019). Ongoing crisis communication: Planning, managing and responding. Fifth Edition. Sage Publications, Inc.
10. Craig, T. C., & Muller, H. L. (2007). Theorizing communication. Readings across traditions. Sage Publication, Inc.
11. Creswell, J. W., & Creswell, J. D. (2018). Research design: Qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods approaches. Fifth Edition. Sage Publications Inc.
12. Duke, O. O., & Agbaji, D. D. (2020). Fulani herdsmen crisis and the socioeconomic development of Benue state, Nigeria. International Journal of Scientific and Research Publications, 10(8), 343-357.
13. Dutta, M. J. (2021). Communication as praxis. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 49(1), 1-2. DOI: 10.1080/00909882.2021.1890962
14. Ekpei, P. U. (May 28, 2023). “Nigeria’s departing President Buhari defends legacy.” Retrieved on May 30, 2023, from,
15. Ephratt, M. (2008). The functions of silence. Journal of Pragmatics, 40, 1909–1938.
16. Gardezi, F., Lingard, L., Espin, S. L., Whyte, S., Orser, B., & Baker, G. R. (2009). Silence, power and communication in the operating room. Journal of Advanced Nursing 65(7), 1390–1399. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2648.2009.04994.x
17. Garfin, D. R., Silver, R. C., & Holman, E. A. (2020). The novel coronavirus (COVID-2019) outbreak: Amplification of public health consequences by media exposure. American Psychological Association, 39(5), 355-357. Retrieved on June 6, 2021, from
18. Goertzel, T., (1994). Belief in conspiracy theories. Political Psychology. 15(4), 731–742. doi:10.2307/3791630. JSTOR 3791630
19. Gold, C. (2019) Communication. Nordic Journal of Music Therapy, 28(3), 171–173. DOI:10.1080/08098131.2019.1589106
20. Guenter, H., Schreurs, B., & IJ. Hetty van Emmerik (2017). What does it take to break the silence in teams: Authentic leadership and/or proactive followership? Applied Psychology: An International Review, 66 (1), 49–77.
21. Grice, H. P. (1989). Studies in the way of words. Harvard University Press.
22. Hardy, T. L. D., Boliek, C. A., Aalto, D., Lewicke, J., Wells, K., & RiegeraJ. M. (2020). Contributions of voice and nonverbal communication to perceived masculinity–Femininity for cisgender and transgender communicators. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 63, 931–947.
23. Isenhart, M. W. (2009). Interpersonal communication in high-tech culture: Eastern or Western? Journal of Applied Communication Research. 15(1-2), 35-52.
24. Joo, J., Bucy, E. P., & Seidel, C. (2019). Licensed under the creative commons automated coding of televised leader displays: Detecting nonverbal political behavior with computer vision and deep learning. International Journal of Communication, 13, 4044-4066.
25. Kidwell, B., & Hasford, J. (2014). Emotional ability and nonverbal communication. Journal of Psychology and Marketing, 31(7), 526–538.
26. Kreps, G. L., Frey, L. R., & O’Hair, D. (2009). Applied communication research: Scholarship that can make a difference. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 19 (1-2), 71-87.
27. Lewandowsky S., Cook J., Oberauer K., Brophy S., Lloyd E. A., & Marriott M. (2015). Recurrent fury: Conspiratorial discourse in the blogosphere triggered by research on the role of conspiracist ideation in climate denial. Journal of Social and Political Psychology, 3, 142–178.
28. LisaM, T. (2009). Speaking into silences: Autoethnography, communication, and applied research. Journal of Applied Communication Research. 37(1), 94-97.
29. Marsen, S. (2020). Navigating crisis: The role of communication in organizational crisis. International Journal of Business Communication, 57(2), 163–175.
30. Ndubuisi, C. I. (2018). A critical analysis of conflicts between herdsmen and farmers in Nigeria: Causes and socioreligious and political effects on national development. HTS Teologiese Studies/Theological Studies, 74(1), 1-6.
31. Ojo, E. O. (2018). Nigeria’s democracy: The trilemma of herdsmenism, terrorism, and vampirism. Journal of Pan African Studies, 11(3), 144-158.
32. Okereke, D. (2012). The remote immediate cause of crimes, insecurity, terrorism and instability in Nigeria and solution. Retrieved on June 16, 2021, from
33. Okibe, H. B. (2022). Herder-Farmer conflicts in South East Nigeria: Assessing the dangers. Southern Voices Network for Peacebuilding Scholar, 34, 1-7.
34. Orjinmo, N. (May 21, 2023). “Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari leaves a legacy of kidnapping, inflation, and debt.” Retrieved on May 22, 2023, from
35. Patton, M. Q. (2015). Qualitative research and evaluation methods. Integrating theory and practice. Fourth Edition. Sage Publications, Inc.
36. Peters, J. D. (2008). Communication: History of the idea. Retrieved on May 5, 2021, from
37. Rosenthal, U. & Kouzmin, A. (1997). Crises and crisis management: Toward comprehensive government decision making, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory, 7, (2), 277–304.
38. Ruqayyah, B. (2019). Farmers-Herders conflict in Nigeria: A review of relevant literature (2019). Retrieved on April 24, 2020, from
39. Seeger, M. W. (2006). Best practices in crisis communication: An expert panel process. Journal of Applied Communication Research, 34(3), 232–244.
40. Slovic, P. (199). Trust, emotion, sex, politics, and science: Surveying the risk-assessment battlefield. In Gesser-Edelsburg, A. & Hijazi, R. (Editors), When politics meets pandemic: How Prime Minister Netanyahu and a small team communicated health and risk information to the Israeli public during the early stages of COVID-19. Risk Management and Healthcare Policy, 13, 2985–3002.
41. van der Linden, S. (2015). The conspiracy effect: Exposure to conspiracy theories (about Global warming) Decreases pro-social behavior and science acceptance. Personality and Individual Differences, 87, 171–173.
42. Valaitis, R. K., O’Mara, L., Wong, S. T., MacDonald, M., Murray, N., Martin-Misener, R., & Meagher-Stewart, D. (2018). Strengthening primary health care through primary care and public health collaboration: The influence of intrapersonal and interpersonal factors. Primary Health Care Resource Development. 19(4), 378–391. doi:10.1017/S1463423617000895PMCID: PMC6452942
43. Virani, F. (2013). The power of silence in effective communication. Retrieved on May 5, 2021, from
44. Watkins, D. V. & Clevenger, A. D. (2021). US political leadership and crisis communication during COVID-19. Cogent Social Sciences, 7, 1-33.
45. Wasike, B. (2018). Gender, parasocial interaction, and nonverbal communication: Testing the visual effect of sports magazine cover models. International Journal of Communication, 12, 173–199.
46. Weigmann, K. (2018). The genesis of a conspiracy theory. Why do people believe in scientific conspiracy theories and how do they spread? Science and Society, EMBO report 19: e45935, 1-4. DOI 10.15252/embr.201845935
47. World Population Review. Accessed on June 14, 2021, from,
48. Walumbwa, F. O., Avolio, B. J., Gardner, W. L., Wernsing, T. S., & Peterson, S. J. (2008). Authentic leadership: Development and validation of a theory-based measure. Journal of Management, 34, 89–126.
How to Cite
Utulu, A. U., & Bello, D. (2023). The Effect of Silence on the Human Communication System. European Scientific Journal, ESJ, 19, 171. Retrieved from
ESI Preprints