Silence as an Expression of Defiance
Have you ever felt someone's eyes looking at you, only to find, when you looked up quickly, that someone was indeed watching you? Usually, most people, when you have caught them staring, will quickly look away. If they do not, things can get very uncomfortable. Why is he staring? Is something wrong? Is he crazy? Is he angry at me? If the person continues to stare, we may get continually more uncomfortable or even angry. This feeling of discomfort from being watched, is fairly universal and in Japan it has become an accepted code of behavior to use eye contact only for important messages. Therefore, generally speaking, eye contact is avoided unless an explicit message is intended.
In the classroom, prolonged eye contact can be used to convey a message, as in acknowledging interest in the lesson, expressing disbelief, or as angry defiance. Angry defiance is usually only used when a student's pride is seriously challenged, as in response to a punishment which he or she considers unjust. Students respect the power of a teacher and will generally avoid public defiance. However, most teachers will eventually have to deal with it sooner or later.
Usually dissatisfaction is expressed by choruses of moaning and groaning from the class or from more outgoing students. More serious problems may be expressed by students slamming their books around, exaggerated dragged out body gestures, or other childish behavior. If a student challenges a teacher with a long hard unflinching stare, the student is stating publicly that your imposition goes beyond acceptable behavior, and the student is willing to risk failure to preserve pride.
On that rare occasion when this has happened in my class, in retrospect I saw how my body language might have been misinterpreted. What I had meant as a joke had been misunderstood. Also after setting a standard considered unreasonably difficult by a particular student, things have escalated into a serious confrontation. Now that I have come to better understand Japanese etiquette and the predisposition of Japanese students, these confrontations are rare. However, since I maintain a standard based on my own educational ideals, confrontation is still possible.
Knowing the appropriate code of behavior for eye contact, as well as how to read different students sense of territory, with a sensitivity to their body signals, will help prevent miscommunication before it becomes problematic. Most conflicts of defiance are because both parties are unmoving. By carefully monitoring the students non-verbals, I find myself predicting and adjusting my feelings and my standards on problematic issues before they get out of hand. In those cases where I ask students to do things outside of the norm, like all students participating in every exercise, I do not make it an issue of confrontation, but one of negotiation, where students feel they understand their options, and the motives behind my directives.