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Cultures in the classroom

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Information for teachers

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Body movements (Kinesics)

Body movements
See also

Body movements

The study of body movements such as eye contact, facial expression and gestures is called kinesics. Some aspects of movement such as smiles are universal but most aren’t or there are significant differences in meaning. While we may recognise that someone doesn’t speak the same language and make allowances for miscommunications, we often don’t do the same thing for differences in kinesics.

Eye contact

Eye contactMost teachers are aware that there are cultural differences in eye contact. In some cultures refusing to look someone in the eye is a sign of dishonesty; in others it is courteous in the presence of someone older or in a position of respect. However, like all aspects of body language, there are more subtle aspects to eye contact. In many cultures, for example, staring is impolite, or even constitutes a challenge but what constitutes staring? Even among Europeans there are variations in how long we look at someone before looking away. In some Pacific, Asian and South American cultures looking at someone for too long is considered aggressive or disrespectful. To avoid this people may look at your throat or between the eyes.

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Facial expressions

A smile is a smile in any language, isn’t it? Well maybe, but with numerous subtexts. Everyone smiles but a smile doesn’t only express pleasure. In some cultures, especially in Asia, it also expresses embarrassment, nervousness or even fear. Students in Western countries quickly learn that smiling when being disciplined, for example, invites more trouble, but it can be a painful lesson. In student-student interactions, smiling in a threatening situation can escalate a situation while not smiling can also be perceived as unfriendly or even challenging. 

There are large cultural differences in the average level of facial expression. In some cultures emotions are openly reflected in facial expressions while in others people demonstrate less facial expression. Students from ‘low expression’ cultures can be overwhelmed by the level of emotion expressed by their ‘high expression’ classmates, while these students fail to respond to important messages in their ‘low expression’ classmates’ faces.

Head movements

For us, ‘yes’ is a nod of the head. ‘No’ is a shake -- but neither movement is universal. In the Philippines ‘yes’ is a jerk upward. ’No’ is a jerk down, for example. However since ‘no’ is avoided, this head movement is sometimes accompanied by a verbal yes, although this doesn’t usually change the meaning. The Chinese also avoid ‘no’ but indicate that ‘something is difficult’ by tipping the head backward and sucking in air in through the teeth. In India jerking the head back or moving it in a figure 8 mean ‘yes’. In some countries, for example in Greece, it is impolite just to nod ‘Yes’. Courtesy demands a verbal ‘Yes’.

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GesturesA friendly or casual gesture in one country can be rude in another.  Some of the most common gestures have different cultural meanings. In most English speaking countries, for example, a thumbs-up gesture mostcommonly means OK. In Greece it more frequently means ‘get stuffed’ while in Indonesia it signals ‘good job’ or ‘delicious’ in reference to food. Gestures commonly used in the classroom also differ. Pointing is rude in numerous countries as is beckoning with the index finger. Indonesians use the thumb instead and Indians use the hand, palm down using a scratching motion with fingers together. The Japanese extend the arm, bend the wrist down and flutter the fingers.

Levels of gesture vary from country to country. In some countries people use a lot of gestures along with their speech; in others people use it sparely. The English, Scandinavians, Austrians and Germans, for example, are low level communicators terms of gestures while in Italy and many South American countries gesturing is an integral part of verbal expression. Americans, however, only use gestures to emphasize particular points and seldom lift their elbows above the level of their shoulders. The English have an even more subdued ‘gesture language’ using only very small gestures.

Gestures influence what we think of people. A person gesticulating in a ‘low-gesture’ country may be perceived as emotional, excitable or even aggressive while the opposite gives the impression of disinterest or stiffness. In terms of communication people from high-gesture cultures may find it difficult to understand low-gesture cultures without the visual dimension of gesticulation.

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Contact: Ngaire Jehle-Caitcheon | Email: info@culturesintheclassroom.com

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