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The use of the body to communicate extends beyond hand signs and facial expressions. We know from experience that how students enter a classroom, where and how they stand or sit, all register subconscious messages to the teacher, and to fellow students. All of this nonverbal communication helps us in discerning appropriate adjustments in our teaching. The tricky part of this for the Western teacher working in Japan is that although fashion and mannerisms may appear the same as in the West, they do not necessarily mean the same thing. Western teachers must learn to re-examine their assumptions, while creating new categories for accessing classroom nonverbal clues.

One of the hardest lessons for me to remember, is that many of my long held devices for assessing students in my own cultural environment, as by their clothing, their age, their major at university, their hair and make-up, etc., usually do not hold in Japan. I must continually remind myself that, though a student may dress and act as an American student, he or she may very well share none of the same political, social, or aesthetic values. Just because a student may be majoring in business administration or English literature, he or she may not have any knowledge or even interest in the subject, the motive for studying based on a very different set of assumptions. What may have been true in New York very often will not be true in Kyoto.

Without a common first language or common cultural references, the Western teacher and Japanese student must rely heavily on nonverbal signals to communicate. Students are faced with the additional challenge of communicating on two levels, to the teacher who may have certain cultural and professional expectations and to their peers who often have very different expectations.

Japanese, like Arab and Mediterranean people, are said to have a “high context” (HC) culture, i.e. most of the information in messages are already inside the person receiving it. Americans and Northern Europeans are said to be “low context” (LC), i.e. communicators require more explicit background information.1 Therefore, in the classroom the non-Japanese teacher is at a distinct disadvantage when interpreting behavior.

In Kabuki theater an actor will freeze in a gesture, holding this for a length of time, while members of the audience cheer his subtlety and strength. To the Western observer this all feels exotic and incomprehensible, except on a rather intuitive level. Yet in time, I believe teachers will begin to recognize that students are using a similar vocabulary of gestures, with a subtle theatrical execution, in a wide variety of situations.

There is for example, several ways of expressing ‘proud-modesty’, a combination not as common in the West. When an outgoing male succeeds at a difficult task in front of the class, he will often use a hand on the back of the neck to express puzzlement at his success. If he succeeds again, he may arch his back backwards in fawned surprise, and then with another successful answer flash a victory sign to his friends.

After repeated observations of similar responses, I have begun to recognize these gestures and their many aesthetic variations, and have even begun to appreciate the artistry in their execution. Their source in traditional theater and comedy has also become apparent, as I find myself recognizing familiar gestures in a variety of traditional theater styles, and have even come to appreciate the emotional impact of these silent sustained gestures.

When I feel offended by student behavior, I must always ask myself “Did the student mean to be offensive, or have I judged the student's action from a narrow cultural perspective, limited by my own cultural prejudices?” If I want to change student behavior to my Western expectations, for example, values in attendance, class participation, the use of intuition and creativity in conversation, etc., then I need to face the enormous task of educating each new student, to a radically new way of perceiving the classroom.

In some cases this may be necessary, though I must keep reminding myself that this is a large task that I am taking upon myself, and one that may not be so easy. Sleeping and talking in class is a good example. All a teacher need do is stroll the halls of any Japanese university, and there will be dozens of students in every classroom chatting together, sleeping conspicuously, combing their hair, working on other assignments, etc. while the instructor is speaking into a microphone over the noise. To many Western teachers this is incomprehensibly rude and pedagogically absurd behavior.

Yet, not only is this considered permissible, but many of the Japanese professors now teaching in universities behaved in a similar way when they were students. Professional student note-takers often sit diligently taking down each detail in the professor's lectures, and later these notes will be made available, often for a price, so that the majority may cram for the final test. Often only Western teachers demand complete attention, by every student, in every class. Attendance, is considered a good will gesture by some students, who usually attend the first class to learn the class requirements, and the last class to find out what will be on the final test.

For the student who is sleeping in class, because he has not eaten properly, because he finds my lesson relaxing, because he is tired from drinking, or his part time job, or his club activities, or whatever reason the Japanese student has, somehow I will need to let him know that I find his sleeping in my class offensive, and his participation desirable.

When he and his friends smoke in the classroom between classes, I must find ways to communicate how much I hate it, though I know it is considered male license to smoke in Japan. And when he and his classmates are yelling in the hall during class, I must find a way to communicate my needs, while recognizing that in his culture, anywhere outside the classroom is considered neutral territory, outside the jurisdiction of instructors. I try and remember, though not always successfully, that what I perceive as offensive may not be meant as such. Most students are living within the assumptions of their own culture, and are actually well behaved, according to Japanese values. It is I who often need to temper my responses within the context of the culture.

The body gestures, at the end of this chapter, are chosen for their frequency in the classroom and for their interest to the EFL teacher. I have verified my interpretations, with students and faculty from a variety of college grade levels in a variety of colleges, though degree of frequency varies with the gender mix of the class, and the type of interaction encouraged. For example, I prefer an animated class with a high variety of physical and social interaction, which naturally encourages the use of body gestures, a more somber lecture style will seldom solicit such variety.

Though I may seem to be painting a grim picture, by highlighting negative behavior, there are always many more students who have excellent study habits, a willingness to learn, and the cultural openness to engage with new and innovative teaching methodology. As the more diligent students are more likely to find ways to communicate to the teacher, it is not as necessary to translate their non-verbals, but since they remain a constant source of confirmation and encouragement, I look for their facial and body signs for moral support, and comprehension confirmation.

Students assume here in Japan that a teacher is the person who establishes the rules inside the classroom. If students cannot live with these rules they must try again next year with a different teacher, therefore discipline is seldom a serious problem. Most of the mis-signaling that I and other teachers experience is within the first few years of teaching in Japan, and is usually generated by the differing expectations of student and teacher.

While students may express an expectation which is similar to that of the teacher's, the actual interpretation of this expectation can be quite different. For example, most students express a wish to have free conversation, yet, in fact, most students have very little, if any, skill at sustaining an unstructured, improvised dialogue. Students will generally look to the teacher to specify what to talk about during free conversation, and if the teacher does not provide direction, they will begin talking in Japanese.

Therefore it is necessary for teachers to read the big picture. Though students say one thing, the full message comes in how they actually react with their bodies. The message may be in Japanese body language, different in meaning to that of the expectations or assumptions of the Western teacher. Body gestures are different than hand and facial expressions, in that they are often calculated to project an idea across the room to the teacher and classmates. Where the face may reveal subtle emotions and the hands a secret message, body gestures are generally used for public display, a theatrical method for communicating to an audience.

1 - Hall, Edward T. and Hall, Mildred Reed, Hidden Differences, Doing Business with the Japanese, New York: An Anchor Book published by Doubleday, 1987.

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