Monday, August 25, 2014

Part N - Teaching in China - Non-verbal Communication

First impressions are said to be gained within seconds of meeting a person; even before you've opened your mouth ... and it's easy to get it wrong. 

Non-verbal communication includes our dress, hairstyle, posture, age, how we smell, and they all contribute to the impression we give to others; and once that impression has been gained, it can be extremely hard to overcome, particularly if it's negative.

Non-verbal cues are understood to represent approximately 2/3 of communication and as with spoken language can easily be misunderstood, especially when culture is added. 

Those of us from backgrounds where eye contact is direct, can find it difficult to adapt to the lack of eye contact between men and women in countries where this is inappropriate. How close we stand can  also present problems, with some westerners finding they keep stepping backwards to attempt to maintain a comfortable distance, while the person they're talking with (who comes from a close contact culture) finds themselves advancing to close the gap! All these and more (see below) could be important to discuss with teacher-students.

The type of clothing we wear conveys non-verbal cues about our personality, background and financial status, and impacts on how people will respond. 

As a teacher visiting China in a professional capacity, how should one dress? The recommendation for the women was: no skimpy outfits or flaunting the cleavage, no shorts, nothing too strappy or revealing, try to cover the shoulders (though that seems to be changing) and remember it's going to be really hot and humid, so quick dry is good. Great! This sounds like my work wardrobe! 

Thankfully, I'd carefully folded my work clothes before leaving home and they'd survived relatively well so the first impression was professional, conservative, and with funky functional shoes that didn't cause blisters and that I could stand in all day. 

Shoes you could stand in all day?!


My students wore glittery fancy shoes with heels! Sparkles, bows, faux gems, platforms and colour! Flats are definitely not the popular shoe. Sigh. As for my comfy sandals which had gone paddling in Nanjing - they looked decidedly worse for wear, they'd changed colour to an uneven, slimy, murky, puke green, and .... was that rust on the rivets, and mould growing on the leather? My feet felt decidedly underdressed! 

Look at the shoes! With gems, colour and bows. They're fun!
I wish I'd thought to ask my students to pose for a shoe photo! 

Unfortunately I'd assumed that there'd be an iron in the hotel - there was, but it didn't work so I felt very embarrassed to be in a perpetually crumpled state after I washed my clothes the first time. The supposed trick of hanging the item in the bathroom when you're having a hot shower so that the steam de-crumples the item doesn't work even when you wish really hard. Sometimes, all you can do is explain the problem, then ignore it, walk tall (Did I hear laughter back there? Yes, I know I'm the shortest person in the room, but being tall doesn't only refer to height, it can be manner as well!) and carry on as normal.  

I've mentioned before that much of my teaching has been with mixed nationality groups, and I've noticed that wherever they're from, it's relatively easy to identify the nervous student, the serious student, the stressed, the humourous, the cheeky and so on.

I've also had the experience of attempting to communicate with someone whose spoken English isn't strong and seen the blank face combined with the nod of agreement - and known that the message hasn't been received! 

It's an odd experience however, to suddenly find yourself doing exactly the same thing!

Picture this scenario - you're in a conversation with a hesitant English speaker, or someone with a strong accent and you have absolutely no idea what they just said. Unlike the janitor clearly conveying his meaning about not putting toilet paper in the toilet, in this instance the speaker isn't gesturing towards any specific nearby object and there are no cues about the subject. The words have come out with emphasis, but they're a confused fuzzy blur. The standard response is to ask them to repeat the sentence. Your ear is tuned in now, all will be fine...

but no
so you ask again
and they patiently repeat what are presumably words, with added emphasis and volume
um, still no

could you possibly try again please, perhaps use some different words? I'm having trouble understanding

so they launch into a frustrated, animated, loud, but ultimately futile attempt to force the meaning into your reluctant brain, and finally, in the desperation borne of complete and utter incomprehension, you decide to nod and smile and hope that what you're smiling about and presumably agreeing to is safe, inexpensive and legal! They must think I'm so thick ... and so, when it happens with students I have some understanding of how it feels. 

Are they smiling with nerves, nodding to avoid the embarrassment of admitting incomprehension, laughing to cover shame, or is it the nod and smile of agreement?

Sometimes though, no effort at all is needed. When you take your lead from your non-English speaking support staff, the non-verbal communication including smiles, touch and hugs are all that's important!

Other important things to remember: 
  • Allow time and silence for the other person to respond. The length of time to respond could be longer than we're used to and it's important not to rush in to cover it. Listening to unfamiliar words, working out context, considering and forming a response can take a while. It's important to be respectful and not to step in to cover that silence simply because we're not used to it or find it uncomfortable. It can erode attempts to find the right words and undermine independence. Careful observation of non-verbal cues will let you know if the struggle is too much and you can gently ask if the person would like help without being pushy or dominating.
  • Self deprecating humour can be confusing or misunderstood. 
  • Be careful of sarcasm and put downs - at any time, but especially between cultures. Even in English speaking countries some humour can be misunderstood and create tension - it's relatively easy to back-track and clarify when you both speak the same language, but a challenge otherwise.

There are some good non-verbal communication teaching suggestions here:

My previous posts about Teaching in China were our ArrivalBanquets,  Culture and Comfort foods, DrivingExerciseFabulous Food,GamesHistoryIllnessFrom Jerilderie to JiangsuKenny (which is about toiletsLists and Communication Misunderstandings. Next up - Observations of an onlooker!


Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Sue - great advice here .. and relevant in other ways too .. the elderly at some stage ...

Cheers Hilary

Sue Travers said...

That's an excellent reminder Hilary. And with the elderly comes the absolute need to give them space and time to respond without rushing.