Body Language Works Two Ways

Christy Schaffner

Picture this:  a nineteen-year-old American woman studying abroad in Greece.  She approaches a periptero (newspaper/bus ticket stand) with the intent of purchasing some bus tickets.

Her Greek ability is not spectacular, but she has the functional language skills to successfully ask if the clerk has tickets (or so she thinks).  She asks, “Exete eisieteria gia to leoforio?”  [Do you have tickets for the bus?] The clerk does not audibly reply, but rather tilts her head slightly back and blinks her eyes slowly.   Although this gesture seemed a bit odd, it was somewhat like a nod that would indicate yes, at least in America, so she thought that the clerk indeed had bus tickets.  After awkwardly standing there for a few long moments, she then asked, “N’agoraso ta eisieteria?” [May I buy some tickets?]  At this point, the clerk looked at her with a relatively universal “Are you crazy?” look.  She then said, “Ochi.” [No.] and did the same slight rear nod with the slow blink.  This time for added emphasis, she also made a slight click with her tongue and palate as she tilted her head back.

The American woman then sheepishly left the periptero, realizing her misjudgment of such a simple gesture.   AND she didn’t even get any bus tickets!

In case you’re wondering, that American woman was, in fact, me when I was studying abroad in Athens, Greece in 2008.  I had gotten a bit of a handle on the functional language needed to get around in the city, but clearly I was not familiar enough with Greek body language to communicate successfully.  For me as a language learner, this was a frustrating but extremely significant step in the language acquisition process.

I erroneously assumed that a simple gesture of yes or no would be the same in Greece as it was in America.  As a language learner, this was a simple transfer error; I transferred something from my native language to the language I was learning.  Thankfully for me, this transfer error did not cause me to do something that was offensive in my host culture.  If I had motioned the following symbol, I could have greatly offended those around me.

How often in the ESL classroom do our students use nonverbal communication that is perhaps a bit odd to us?  Perhaps they use a gesture that is inappropriate in America, such as pointing to something with their middle finger.  Maybe their tone comes off as accusatory instead of inquisitive in the classroom.  If your classroom is anything like mine, this happens pretty often.  Transfer errors are a natural part of the language acquisition process.

Similarly, how often do you think we do something nonverbally when teaching our multicultural students that may be interpreted incorrectly based on their cultural norms?  Whether it’s something as simple as excessive eye contact or something more serious like an unwanted handshake between sexes, our nonverbal communication can also be misinterpreted by our students.

So what should we do?  I believe the key to success for both parties is awareness.

In order for us to take advantage of our students’ teachable moments and teach them about American English body language, we must make a concerted effort to be aware of these behaviors and document them.  We must teach them appropriate body language with compassion and understanding, realizing that we too would likely make similar errors in a second language.  (Or, if you’re like me, you’ve already made plenty of these errors!)

As educators, we must also be cognizant of our body language and be aware that many of our students may misinterpret our body language.  Maybe our nonchalant shrug of the shoulders does not mean “no” to our students, or our comforting pat on the back is an invasion of space!  If we are unaware of how our actions impact others, how can we effectively teach our students?

How can we apply this in the classroom?

  • Like previously mentioned, be aware of your students’ behaviors. Be aware of your actions as well.  Take your subconscious actions to a conscious level as much as possible, and actively observe your students.
  • Involve your students.  People typically love to talk about their own cultures.  It is a great way to help you students feel like valued contributors in the classroom.
  • If possible, utilize technology to demonstrate body language.  In the classroom, I have done this through the use of GIFs and YouTube videos.  It is one thing for an instructor or student to act out an action.  It is a whole other experience to see people on a screen interacting.
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