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RUNNING HEAD: THE AWARENESS OF NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION WITHIN

The Awareness of Nonverbal Communication within the Multicultural Classroom


Kristin Hawkins
Wheaton College Graduate School

The Awareness of Nonverbal Communication within the Multicultural Classroom

THE AWARENESS OF NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION

Nonverbal communication tends to be unavoidable. Our actions likely imply more


information than we might realize. Especially within the classroom, the understanding of
nonverbal communication is crucial to maintaining order. Nonverbal behavior within the
multicultural classroom influences the interactions among teachers and students alike.
This paper will discuss several aspects of multicultural, nonverbal communication. Initially, it
will explain the reasons why nonverbal behavior is practically unavoidable. Then it will consider
how some cross-cultural nonverbal actions directly translate into the American context and how
those might be skewed according to the expectations and values within the foreign culture. This
will lead to a discussion on how our cultural views and backgrounds actually influence how we
interpret the students. It will end with considering the implications of all this as well as a
conclusion to tie it all together.
The Automaticity of Nonverbal Behavior
Nonverbal communication is nearly impossible to avoid. According to Verderber & Verderber
(2004), much of our nonverbal behavior is reactivewe unconsciously respond to what is
happening, so others use it as a guide to our true feelings. (p. 123) This is a reality that may,
unintentionally, lead to misunderstandings between or among people, especially within crosscultural situations. However, even within my own culture, this concept of being misunderstood
in the utilization of nonverbal behavior may be inevitable. For example, I voluntarily helped a
group of Chinese people with their English back at a church in West Lafayette, IN. Since I was
sharing a subject that I thoroughly enjoyed, I laughed quite often at the time that I was teaching
the lesson. To add some context to the situation, laughing often is actually a subconscious habit
of mine. It usually has to do with the enjoyment of a thought or activity. However, a higher

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positioned volunteer misinterpreted my laughter as a nervous laughter. At that moment, my habit


was being misjudged by a fellow American.
People tend to judge nonverbal behavior on a regular basis. They generally search for
meaning beyond the words spoken by any one individual. Some habits, however, might be more
subconsciously misjudged based on our personal worldview rather than the various factors,
possibly unknown, concerning the person doing the nonverbal reaction to the circumstance. In
the example above, my laughing was regarded as a nervous laughter. In the point-of-view of the
other volunteer, I was doing a subconscious reaction found normally in other people for a reason,
in my mind, was entirely unknown to me.
Nervous laughter, after all, is a commonplace term. This type of laughter is demonstrated
through general reactions among people, television shows and movies, and even books. This
assumption would have been an easy mistake to make. The indications of what was actually
happening at the time were interpreted by only a few factors, including some possible intrinsic
influences, rather than the entire picture. In this case, my habit was seen as something completely
different than what it actually was. However, if the circumstances would have been different,
perhaps this misinterpretation of my action of laughter could have been avoidable.
Some situations are prime for studying nonverbal behavior and discerning between habits and
reactions. As another example, consider the life skills/special education classroom. From my
own experience as a paraprofessional, or, in other words, a teachers assistant, I remember, from
my observation, how the teacher above me was required to understand the verbal and nonverbal
cues of the students. She would witness their actions on an almost daily basis. Throughout this
time, she was able to discern between their unintentional/neutral habits and their reactive
nonverbal behaviors. The teachers choice to understand the students nonverbally benefited the

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students and staff alike. Through her observations, the students were helped to a greater degree
through her careful understanding of the nonverbal communication within the classroom. Based
off this example, if nonverbal behavior is studied correctly, it has the potential be understood for
what it is rather than for what it is not. However, nonverbal behaviors are also found in more
than what was just mentioned.
Consider facial expressions. According to Gottman & DeClaire (2001), People may
present a mixture of expressions when they are trying to conceal their feelings. (p. 177) This
type of reaction tends to be automatic throughout humanity. Micro-expressions are likely initial
reactions to an emotional thought or circumstance.
To understand this a little better, take into account this example. Perhaps, after a quick second
or two of the micro-expression, the individual might make a conscious effort to hide the original
feelings presented in the micro-expression through redirecting oneself to portraying a voluntary,
unnatural expression in its place. This act of covering the micro-expression is motivated by a
form of intrinsic motivation. However, some avoidance of micro-expressions also come through
extrinsic motivations as well.
Photography may be an example of choosing to hide feelings out of some form of extrinsic
motivation. Gottman & DeClaire (2001) mention, for example, the fake smile, which may mean,
a posed or unfelt smilethe type that photographers get when they tell people to say
cheese. (p. 178) In other words, emotional feelings and nonverbal reactions are somewhat
connected. As a fake smile is a forced effort to portray emotion, a real smile, on the hand, even as
a micro-expression, is an automatic response to a positive experience or thought. Microexpressions are likely automatic and unavoidable.

THE AWARENESS OF NONVERBAL COMMUNICATION

Gestures are another example of unconscious, nonverbal behavior. Although facial


expressions are usually the first place we look for emotional information, feelings can be
detected as well in the way people use other parts of their body. (Gottman & DeClaire, 2001, p.
181) People react to thoughts and situations in multiple, subtle ways. For example, whenever I
am nervous in a one-on-one conversation, sometimes I drink more sips of water than usual. This
is a natural reaction and cover up to try to alleviate the discomfort from this feeling of being
nervous. Some normal reactions to the feeling of nervousness, however, might not require using
external props.
Sometimes a nervous reaction might be in response to an uncomfortable, untrustworthy
interaction with another person. In this case, the listener might attempt to subconsciously move
further away from the speaker. This could be a nonverbal way of communicating a lack of trust
or, perhaps, a lack of comfort in the conversation with the unwanted speaker. This reaction might
also be combined with a change in the tone and intonation of the listeners voice. Nonverbally,
the involuntary listener may be trying to make an escape from the uncomfortable conversation.
Nonverbal behavior portrays itself in a variety of ways. Some of it involves unintentional
truth, while other nonverbal behavior is misread as a reaction rather than a simple habit of the
unsuspecting individual. It is a complicated enough to fully understand this concept within
American culture, so how would it translate into other cultures?
Nonverbal Behavior and Cross-Cultural Situations
Some nonverbal behavior directly translates into the American culture, but the foreign culture
itself influences how much of that nonverbal behavior is actually shown within the public

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setting. Gottman & DeClaire (2001) mention, as an example, an experiment concerning reactions
to a film:
The American participants showed a wide range of distressed facial expressions, while the
Japanese participants responded with polite smiles, if at all. Things changed, however, when
study participants were left completely alone to watch the film. When they thought that
nobody was watching them, the people of both cultures showed similarly distressed facial
expressions. (p. 174)
Although the natural reactions of the participants were natural and almost universal, they were
actually not apparent among the Japanese within the public setting. Showing their emotions was
likely not polite. It was only when the Japanese were left alone that they could easily show their
true reactions to the film. However, the Americans continued to show their emotions through
their facial expressions, whether they were alone or in a group. The cultural expectations of each
cultural group was different. However, some natural nonverbal behavioral reactions were not
universal and, thus, should be considered in other contexts outside of this experiment.
One crucial, cultural aspect that is applicable to the classroom setting would be the ability to
understand if the student is listening to the instruction given in the teachers lessons. Although
this might naturally be understood in many contexts through an automatic reaction of eye contact
and backchannel signs (e.g. head nodding), this is not the case in all multicultural situations.
Erickson (1979) gives an example between two common subcultures within the United States:
In the black system, if the listener had not previously been looking at the speaker, he could
provide active listening response simply by raising the eyes and gazing at the speaker. In in
the white system, gaze involvement is by itself not enough; verbal and/or nonverbal

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response is also required. In the white system, vocal back channel may be given as a listening
response, such as mhm, are usually accompanied by simultaneous accented head nods,
while in the black system either an accented head nod or a vocal back channel may be given
as a listening response, but both are not usually given simultaneous. (p. 118)
Whether the nonverbal behavior involves the public responses to the film or the back channel
signals given in the experiment among American participants, differences in understanding,
especially if a person is from another culture or subculture, do matter. Reliance on ones own
understanding is likely not enough, especially within the multicultural classroom.
The cultural background and subcultural upbringing of the teacher and the students are just
two factors to consider in cross-cultural nonverbal communication. Reflecting back on the
misunderstanding of my laughing habit should bring to light the implications of being a unique
individual. The norm of one culture or subculture does not speak for everybody. In this case, it is
crucial to truly know the students in the classroom as they actually are rather than simply on
what ones cultural background might indicate concerning them. This takes time and careful
observation of the natural reactions and habits of the students. Some universal reactions may be
altered by extrinsic and/or intrinsic tendencies. It may be a matter of perception in directing how
the teacher may interpret the actions of the students.
Perception of others is an important factor to consider in cross-cultural communication within
the multicultural classroom. How the teacher perceives the students manner of back channeling
is just one important factor to keep in mind. The concept of perception in cross-cultural
communication should be considered in teacher-student interactions, which will likely influence
the students perception of the teacher as well as teachers perception of the students.

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Native Cultural Perception of Nonverbal Behaviors


Cultural and personal bias tend to skew the ability to interpret nonverbal behavior. However,
the focus on the words rather than the actions of the students may lead to an even further
misinterpretation within the multicultural classroom. According to Wolfgang (1979), Teachers,
like others, have been taught in school that the written and spoken word is supreme, and the
impact of nonverbal behavior has been largely ignored. (p. 161) This point-of-view, although
somewhat acceptable for the typical American, complicates the ability to read students from
more high-context cultures within the typical classroom setting. However, a proper
understanding of the students should give the teacher a greater ability to understand and connect
with them instead.
Nonverbal behavior is not necessarily controllable, in some cases, despite its importance.
Culture, like nonverbal behavior, tends to be elusive, normally out of our awareness, difficult to
control, falsify, manipulate, erase, and has a potent influence in intercultural communication.
(Wolfgang, 1979, p. 163) The habits of the teachers and students may be difficult to change.
However, if acculturation, either on the teachers or the students side, takes place, it might alter
these nonverbal behaviors and translate them into the host culture. Nonetheless, this form of
adaption to the host culture might not be automatic, so it is important to realize the implications
of the process of acculturation instead.
Wolfgang (1979) also notes another important aspect to consider concerning this issue:
The teacher most likely has little direct knowledge about the culture, the language, the
education system of the students, teacher expectations, nonverbal behavior, teaching
methods used, values stressed, and learning and communication styles of the students in

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their own culture. Similarly, the immigrant or newstudent knows little about the[host
countrys] educational system and culture. (p. 164)
Although the cultural differences may go beyond the nonverbal behaviors of the teacher and
students, the reason for the potential misunderstandings among them should generally still be the
same. The teachers and students alike may have a certain amount of inexperience with nonverbal
communication within the classroom on a cross-cultural level. This may result in a level of
confusion that may only be remedied through the mutual understanding of the nonverbal
behaviors of the various cultures within the classroom.
Unfortunately, a teachers worldview on nonverbal behavior does influence how much the
instructor may understand the students. In my situation, my laughter was misinterpreted by
someone elses point-of-view, but it was not based on proper observation. It was, instead, based
on a cultural norm. Needless to say, not everyone fits into the norm of their own culture. This
aspect alone indicates just how complicated the subject of nonverbal behavior within the
multicultural classroom really could be.
Applications
Nonverbal behavior within the multicultural classroom may involve a number of applications
that the teacher should consider, especially involving ESL (English as a second language) or EFL
(English as a foreign language) instruction. A few of them will be listed and discussed below in
order to conclude the concepts of nonverbal communication previously discussed in this paper.
Through understanding these applications, the teacher should be able to better communicate and
understand nonverbal communication within the multicultural classroom.

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Researching multicultural nonverbal communication might be a safer choice than simply
going by the teachers initial inclinations of the students. Through taking the time to greater
understand and appreciate the nonverbal communication used by the students within the
classroom, the teacher should likely have more success in teaching them the subject being taught
(e.g. English) as well as possessing a greater understanding of the students themselves. This will
enhance the possibility of having an authentic learning environment within the classroom.
However, some of the teachers inclinations should still matter.
Subtle observations of the students nonverbal behaviors should improve the chances of
knowing and connecting with them on a greater level. This would be a direct application of the
research of the various cultures and subcultures of the students. It should also be a result of
becoming familiar with the students habits and reactions within the classroom. However, these
applications should only be a part of the understanding of nonverbal communication within the
multicultural classroom.
The teacher should, nonetheless, not be overconfident about knowledge on nonverbal
behaviors within the classroom. Even after researching and observing their nonverbal actions, the
instructor should not stop learning about the students and their cultural backgrounds. The
students are still individuals who need to be understood beyond any cultural or subcultural norm.
The teacher should continue learning with each interaction among the students within the
multicultural classroom.
Conclusion
This paper covered the various reasons as to why nonverbal behavior matters within the
multicultural classroom. Although the research and observations presented were somewhat

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broad, they should hopefully open the door to more understanding as to why the teacher,
especially within a multicultural classroom, should study and try to understand nonverbal
communication at a much deeper level through the discussion of nonverbal behavior itself, how
that nonverbal behavior might actually translate into the American culture, the possible
interpretations of the teacher, and the applications on how to greater understand and apply the
concept of nonverbal communication within the multicultural classroom. Through an increased
awareness of this subject, teacher-student communication within the classroom could potentially
be improved in a way that would impact the students in a more positive manner.

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References
Erickson, F. (1979). Talking down: Some cultural sources of miscommunication in interracial
interviews. In Wolfgang, A. (Ed.). Nonverbal behavior: Applications and cultural implications,
99-126. New York, NY: Academic Press.
Gottman, J. M. (Ph.D.) & DeClaire, J. (2001). The relationship cure. New York, NY: Crown
Publishers
Pell, M. D., Monetta, L., Paulmann, S., & Kotz, S. (2009 January 21). Recognizing emotions in a
foreign language. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 33, 107-120.
http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10919-008-0065-7/fulltext.html
Wolfgang, A. (1979). The teacher and nonverbal behavior in the multicultural classroom. In
Wolfgang, A. (Ed.). Nonverbal behavior: Applications and cultural implications, 159-174. New
York, NY: Academic Press.
Verderber K. S., & Verderber R. F. (2004). Inter-Act: Interpersonal communication concepts,
skills, and concepts. (10th Ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press

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