“You are a good teacher because you because you dress like a teacher.”
Multiple students communicated this sentiment to me in our previous city. It was a strange statement, the kind that makes you tilt your head and furrow your brow, like a German Shepherd not quite getting the meaning of their master’s command. Yet we foreign English teachers started noticing that local teachers did tend to dress very formally, and not just in the classroom – even when they were shopping in the bazaar. This contrasted strongly with our Western casual or even business casual dress. So, as an experiment I started wearing a blazer or jacket every time I taught, along with dress pants, shoes, and a collared shirt. I never went as far as a tie, but I was curious to see if there would be any kind of different response from my local students. As a new teacher who tends to look much younger than I actually am, I was hoping to also make up for some of my apparent lack of age and experience.
The responses were, if anything, more strongly positive than I would have expected. They actually viewed me as a better teacher because of the way I dressed. What was going on? I was wading into an area of important non-verbal communication in my host culture.
Non-verbal communication refers to aspects of communication apart from verbal speech. These parts of communication account for the majority of actual communication that takes place – some say as much as eighty five percent! Regardless of the culture, when a person’s verbal communication contradicts their non-verbal communication, those on the receiving end tend to believe the non-verbal, emphasizing the power of this kind of non-speaking speech. Think about it. If someone tells you they are fine, but their facial expression tells you otherwise, you believe the face every time.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of nonverbal communication in my adopted Central Asian culture. Bodily gestures and the use of the physical context are crucially important for communicating honor or shame (Others call this a high context culture). When greeting, it’s important to stand, shake hands, or to give repeated cheek kisses for close friends or relatives. Then you must not sit down until the guest has sat down first. For older relatives, male and female, respect and affection is communicated by shaking their hand with both hands, kissing their hand, or kissing their shoulder. A hand on the chest or raised in a slight salute is also very appropriate for greeting men while passing. In general, bodily gestures should be masculine for men and feminine for women – reserved, graceful, and dignified. Sitting straight up with the legs crossed and arms tucked in is viewed as more respectful than sitting slouched and sprawled out. Arms may be crossed, but hands in the pockets communicates disinterest and disrespect. The bottom of the foot is shameful and should not be pointed at any person (Westerners get in trouble with this one a lot!). Other gestures such as picking and blowing one’s nose, or the OK sign, can also be very offensive.
As for my students, they were expressing the fact that clothing also speaks loudly in local culture, communicating respect and propriety toward those one is interacting with. It also reflects one’s position. Professional men such as lawyers, teachers, and managers are expected to dress the part, often with a jacket and tie – with a particular skill for spotlessly shined shoes in spite of the ever-present dust (It’s really quite remarkable). Grooming is also expected to be immaculate and formal. I can’t quite yet bring myself to blow dry my hair like most local men my age do. But I definitely use more hair cream here than I do when I’m in the West. Scruffy is not really mainstream here yet. Think 1950’s.
Other areas of non-verbal communication include positions of seating and standing (like is mentioned in Mark 12:39). These communicate honor – the furthest seat from the door is the most honorable spot – while prominence in position in photos, vehicles, and even groups walking communicates non-verbally who the most respected guest is. Physical touch among good friends of the same gender is also very common, indicating a warm relationship. This can include an arm around the shoulder, hand-holding, an friend’s hand on your leg during conversation (takes a while to get used to), and shoulders brushing while walking side by side. Eye contact, colors of clothing, and silence can all be used with deadly affect to communicate honor or shame as well, along with many other non-verbal actions.
We have our own forms of non-verbal communication in the West, of course. Every culture does. Yet we tend not to think about them and to assume that everyone communicates similarly. Many of our Western middle-class non-verbal forms reflect our high valuing of equality, individualism, and informality. Before living in Central Asia, I never thought about how much American body language is attempting to communicate that each person believes the other views them as an equal. I want you to know by my body language that I don’t think that you think that you are better than me and vice versa. In contrast, much Central Asian non-verbal communication is to demonstrate and reinforce differences in honor and status. Very un-American, yes, but much more in line with the majority of human cultures throughout history.
Non-verbal communication is a minefield, but one that must be navigated if we are to communicate with love, honor, and respect in other cultures – and even in the subcultures of our home countries. Many of the one-another commands of the New Testament will be affected by how we communicate non-verbally. Yet without proactive questions and observations, we can go years unintentionally offending others. On the other hand, by learning the non-verbal communication of our particular host culture well, we can be removing barriers for the gospel message. The gospel will be offensive in one aspect or another. So it’s best that I do what I can to make sure my posture, clothing, and body language are not. Will we get it perfect? No. There’s grace and freedom for our cultural missteps! Yet let’s use that grace and freedom for the sake of love. Let’s learn how to communicate love effectively with our words – and with the other eighty five percent of our communication.
For more info on non-verbal communication, see Effective Intercultural Communication by Scott A. Moreau