The Heart of the Matter: When the Senses Don’t Make Sense. Adventures in Non-verbal Communication
Lou Spaventa, US
”What you do speaks so loud that I cannot hear what you say.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson
In most textbooks on cross-cultural communication, the point is made that the non-verbal always trumps the verbal. That is to say that the conscious and unconscious signals we send through our actions, comportment, and mode of dress give more information and have more salience for the receiver of a cross-cultural message than words do. Non-verbal communication includes, but is not limited to, gestures, facial expressions, use of the five senses, and adornment. There are universal components to non-verbal communication. For example, all human beings can recognize certain basic emotions even when they do not understand the language conveying them. We can understand happiness, sadness, anger, and a few other basic emotions. We also intuit that women in a culture and men in a culture express themselves differently when it comes to non-verbal messages. On the other hand, it is evident to any beginning student of a foreign language that non-verbal communication differs from culture to culture.
From March 1st until May 11th of this year, I lead a group of young American students on a study abroad program in Rome. One of the courses that students took was titled “Intercultural Communication,” and in this course, one of the points of emphasis was non-verbal communication. As part of their course requirements, students were asked to keep an intercultural journal in which they recorded a minimum of three experiences in Italian culture per week. They were instructed to focus on a single concrete experience they had that had a clear beginning and a clear end. They were to record concretely and in detail what the experience was. They then were instructed to write about how they felt about the experience, and finally they had to analyze the experience using concepts of intercultural communication, concepts such as the overt and covert dimensions of culture, worldview and perception.
As our time in Rome went on, my students and I would discuss experiences in class and try to decenter ourselves and examine experience as a social scientist might, as a kind of participant observer in anthropological terms. There were several common experiences that students wrote about. They were taking the tram to class everyday, walking and watching street life, and interacting in bars and clubs with Italians. What interests me about their observations of Italian culture is that, for the most part, students were not able to describe experiences without using positive and negative adjectives. They also found it difficult to isolate one experience and examine it. They tended to generalize a series of experiences rather than to stay with one experience.
Typically, the tram experience went something like this (I am now writing as a student might). “We got on the tram this morning and as usual it was very crowded. We didn’t want to be late so we squeezed onto the tram. I found myself face to face with an Italian guy whose body odor and coffee breath nearly made me barf. Each time the tram came to a sudden stop or lurched forward, the guy fell into me and didn’t seem to care where he landed. I felt violated. My personal space was invaded.”
The street life story often went as follows. “I was sitting in Piazza Navona when this couple sitting near me began to make out, but not just little kisses. They were tonguing each other and grabbing each other. It really grossed me out. Then this woman near me began to yell at her son and to smack him. He cried, so she stopped hitting him. The next minute she was caressing him and talking to him in Italian in a nice way.”
The club story might go like this. “We went into this club and when Janie started to dance these guys came up to her and started dancing really close to her. Then they tried to touch her. She stopped dancing, but the guys wouldn’t leave her or us alone. They came over to our table and insisted on staying even though we told them we weren’t interested in their company. Finally, we had to leave the club. The guys followed us outside and continued to bother us until we walked close to another group of people who were Italian. We took a taxi home because we didn’t want to wait for the bus. We thought those guys would follow us if we waited in one place.”
In each hypothetical case above, students are initially affected in a deeply negative way by their encounter with Italian public behavior. They are so offended that they can only report their encounters using judgmental language even before they attempt to analyze what happened. To add to the negativity of these encounters, most of my students were beginners in Italian and could not express themselves in that language. They could only observe or be the focus of verbal and non-verbal behavior. As a result, the force of the non-verbal messages they received was redoubled because there was no verbal channel for cross-cultural negotiation of meaning. A good deal of their non-verbal interaction was negative and that, in turn, influenced their cognitive and emotional understanding of Italian culture. Instead of removing themselves from the situation when trying to analyze what happened, most students began with the value judgment that what they had encountered was wrong, was bad behavior in public. They then attempted to explain this bad behavior. It is my contention that starting from this point of analysis, the only conclusion one could draw would be one critical of Italian culture. In terms of the “W” curve of culture shock, such non-verbal encounters hasten the hostility stage.
I am a firm believer in the axiom that the first step one takes is often the most important step one will ever take. If that first step in cross-cultural understanding is characterized by unpleasant feelings and thoughts, then the whole process of adaptation to the host culture will be colored by it. Future encounters at best will be a search for compensatory experiences, ones which will make up for the negative experiences which came first when language was not available. Another way to look at these phenomena is that the honeymoon phase of cross-cultural experience is often represented by the artifacts of a particular culture, not by people themselves. In the case of Rome, my students were positive about the Roman ruins, Italian architecture, the scenery, the food, and the stylish clothing. On the other hand, initial encounters with Italians and observations of their public behavior were often negative and represented a quick move towards the hostility/crisis phase. Such a dichotomy between the products of a culture and the people of a culture represent an obstacle to culture learning and to language learning. How can language instruction deal with such a problem? I am reminded of the position of Georgi Lozanov and his language teaching method, suggestopedia, in which positive, enriching artifacts of the target language culture are put into the environment of the student to suggest a positive association with the new language and the new culture. This deliberate attempt to associate the non-verbal with positive feelings is a strength of suggestopedia, in my opinion, and enables students studying with this method to make strides in the language. However, the environment is the classroom and not the world outside. Thus, there is a degree of control which is not common to learning a new language in its cultural context.
My students did not become Italian haters because of their daily non-verbal encounters.
They looked for the positive where they could find it; perhaps in the smile of a friendly barrista or the helpfulness of an old gentleman who gave them directions and made sure they got on the right train. However, I believe that their initial encounters were often negative ones. Is this unavoidable? To a certain extent, I believe it is. A series of culture bumps is to be expected when encountering the people of a new culture and language.
What helps in such situation is processing experience and trying to understand it without a strong prejudice against it. It also helps, again to a certain extent, to prepare students for common cross-cultural experiences which might have a negative outcome, such as standing cheek to jowl with Italians on a crowded tram. In the end, it is up to the individual to adapt to the new culture or to reject it. In my group of Peace Corps Volunteers to Korea many years ago, there was a lot of attrition early on because of rejection of the new culture, not to mention the difficulty of learning Korean. For my students, their attitude towards Italian culture was positive before they left for Italy. Our program was short and there was no attrition, but there was a definite change in attitude towards Italian culture based upon non-verbal experience once they had been in Rome for a while.
Please check the British Life, Language and Culture course at Pilgrims website.