I’d been teaching Saudi students for almost a YEAR when I finally found out that they’d been trying to communicate a crucial bit of information to me with gestures. For a year, I’d obliviously ignored my students’ pleas for more time to think. I refused to give them more time to formulate their answers. They didn’t have enough time to ask what they wanted to ask. I focused entirely on their faces to look for clues to help me understand their unspoken needs. This meant I hadn’t noticed the gesture they used. With your palm up, draw all your fingers and thumbs together, pointed up. Now bop your hand lightly up and down. That means “wait”. So simple, right? And once I was aware of it, I noticed it constantly! They used it all the time!
Gestures–unspoken communication in your classroom
After my experiences while teaching in South Korea, you’d think I’d have been more conscious of the unspoken communication going on around me, but who knows how much I missed? We know not to just ask, “Do you understand” because we aren’t likely to get an accurate answer. We know to watch their faces, to recognize confusion–but what if you have students from cultures who DON’T use facial expressions to communicate much? What about the students from cultures that use gestures completely different from ours?
While shopping in a street market in South Korea, I felt like an intrusive presence. So many of the vendors shooed me away. Later I learned that the Korean gesture for “come here” is very similar to the gesture we use in the United States for “go away”. Using this gesture with my Korean students in Oklahoma helped put them at ease. I could invite them to come closer without calling attention to their desire for more personal one-on-one attention. (I taught in a tiny, packed classroom and could not physically get close to students unless they were in the front row.)
Thanks to my time in Korea, I quickly recognized the signal a Japanese student gave me. She wanted to warn me about an angry classmate. It’s not a gesture used in the USA, but I remembered my Korean students using it. I immediately grasped the warning. If I hadn’t understood the gesture, I wouldn’t have known to take steps to de-escalate the situation.
Pitfalls of Gestures in a Multicultural Classroom
Knowing that a Chinese student is touching his nose to refer to himself the same way we do when we touch our chest is one thing. What about when a gesture that’s perfectly innocent in one culture is obscene to the extreme in another?
The theme of body language and gestures is one of my favorites for class discussions. This is in part because it can ward off misunderstandings that might otherwise cause outrage. For example, when my Chinese student enthusiastically gave the thumb’s up gesture to his partner from Iran, he had no idea that he was being extremely insulting. (I tended to use that gesture a lot myself. I had to physically HOLD my thumbs whenever I had Iranians in my classroom to prevent myself from flipping them off.) By the way, don’t cross your fingers to wish luck when you have Vietnamese students in your class. It’s a gesture meaning female genitalia.
Gestures can bring us all closer
Being aware of gestures and body language used by different cultures can help you understand your students and even communicate with them. You’d be surprised at how much this can put them at ease. They may not even make the connection and know why they feel so comfortable with you, but you’ll impart a sense of the familiar. One of my students perhaps summed it up best when she said, “I feel like some of my home is here with you.” Plus, it’s certainly worth knowing that your Brazilian student just had an A-Ha moment when she smacked her forehead with her fist in the Brazilian “It’s so obvious!” gesture.
Talk about it with your students!
Click the image to grab these free cards from my Body Language and Gestures discussion card resource to help get the conversation going on gestures. Your students will genuinely enjoy this theme and delight in learning the positive (and yes, the negative) gestures from their classmates’ culture. Take notes because you’ll probably learn some new ones yourself!