Nonverbal Communication

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Nonverbal Communication

Please read the story below and then follow the directions for this discussion.


The school day ended. Tired Ms. Larson took her classroom problems home with her. She shared her concerns at an informal cocktail party, particularly her frustration with teaching English in the Ethiopian government school. “For three years, I've tried to get these girls to behave like normal human beings, to have some pride, to hold up their heads, look me in the eye, and answer a question in a voice I can hear without straining. They're so bright; they learn as fast as the children back home, but they have no dignity. For all the good I've done here, I might as well have stayed home in Iowa.” The school day ended. Kebedetch walked stiffly home. The strange steel she had forced into her neck muscles seemed to have spread throughout her body. She felt rigid, brave, and frightened. Entering the gojo (small house or hut), Kebedetch was greeted warmly. Father asked the usual, daily question: “What did you learn today?” Kebedetch threw back her head, looked her father in the eye, and proclaimed in a loud, clear voice, “Ethiopia is composed of twelve provinces plus the Federated State of Eritrea. . . .”

Momma and Poppa talked late that night. What had happened to Kebedetch? She was no longer behaving as a normal human being.

“Did you notice how she threw back her head like a man?” asked Poppa. “What has happened to her shyness as a woman?”< /font>

“And her voice,” added Momma. “How happy I am that our parents were not present to hear a daughter of ours speak with the voice of a foreigner.”

“She showed no modesty; she seemed to feel no pride. If she were normal, she would be ashamed to raise her head like that, being a girl-child, and to speak so loudly,” Poppa added with a deep sigh.

“Kebedetch has learned so much,” said Momma. “She knows more than I, and this has given me great joy. But if her learnings are making her a strange, ungentle, beast-like person, I do not want her to learn more. She is my only daughter.”

Poppa pondered. Finally he shook his head and spoke. “You are right, Mebrat; our daughter must not return to school. The new education is not good, and only the strongest can survive. I had hoped Kebedetch could learn and remain normal and gentle, could become a woman of dignity. The frightening behavior of hers tonight has convinced me. She has lost her sense of pride, lost her sense of shame, lost her dignity. She must not return to the school. We shall try to help her find herself again.”

Source: Adapted from Lord, E. (1965). Examples of Cross-Cultural Problems Encountered by Americans Working Overseas: An Instructor’s Handbook.Alexandria, VA: Human Resource Research Organization.

This activity allows you to explore the different culture-specific interpretations ascribed to nonverbal behavior. You will have a minimum of four (4) responses in this discussion. You can understand that although the behavior may be the same, how people perceive the behavior and the meaning they attach to it can vary greatly across cultures. First give brief answers to the questions below. Then reply to one another’s brief answers.

1. What specific nonverbal behaviors did Kebedetch’s parents find objectionable?

2. What meanings had Ms. Larson ascribed to these behaviors? What meanings had Momma and Poppa ascribed to these behaviors?

3. Within this story, what cultural information (values, attitudes, and expectations about parenting, education, etiquette, behavior of men and women, etc.) about the U.S. and Ethiopia is communicated through the words of Ms. Larson, Momma, and Poppa?

4. Do you think Kebedetch should be allowed to go back to school? Justify your answer.

5. Should certain changes be made if Kebedetch is to return to school? If yes, describe the changes that should be implemented. If not, think of any consequences that might occur as a result.

Give other examples of your own experiences with nonverbal behavior and the culture-specific meanings ascribed to the behavior.

Comment on your answers to some of the following suggested questions in your replies and remarks.

• Do you think anyone acted inappropriately in this story?

• How do you think Kebedetch felt about her lessons from Ms. Larson?

• Was Ms. Larson teaching her Ethiopian students something valuable? What did she fail to take into consideration?

• How could she have prevented Kebedetch’s withdrawal from her classes?

• What is cultural imperialism? Should Ms. Larson have been in Ethiopia teaching what she believed was correct?

• What are examples of cultural imperialism in other countries and in the U.S. (e.g. Manifest Destiny, the “English only” movement)?

• How is this story indicative of the phrase, “Meaning is in people”?

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