Non-verbal miscommunication

November 3rd, 2011


There is no debate that our schools are growing more and more culturally diverse every year. According to the U.S. Department of Education, it is projected that forty percent of the overall U.S. population will be “non-white” by 2025 as opposed to the twenty percent figure it was in 1980. This trend in the overall population is seen clearly in our schools.  We, as teachers, will be faced with language barriers, difficulties with stereotypes (both ones that we have and ones amongst the students), and the more elusive non-verbal miscommunications. It is virtually unrealistic to expect these can be completely, neatly solved. However, there are some ways to ‘grease the wheels’, both through developing understanding and setting expectations.

Outward appearance and spoken language are two of the most easily spotted differences amongst races and ethnicities. When Brown vs. the Board of Education passed, openly segregating students based on their appearance became illegal. The usage of ESL teachers in public schools at least attempts to overcome the rising language barrier.  However, in our schools today, culture, race, and ethnicity are still hot topics. Much of this continued tension could be coming from cultural behavior and expectations that are non-verbal.  Karen McGee (2008) states that “as little as 7 percent of a message may be expressed in words. The rest is through facial expression, voice tone, body gestures, and overall posture.” (p. 1).  Non-verbal miscommunication might be one of the least ‘discussed’ problems in a multicultural class.

Are behaviors that are culturally acceptable to one group and not to another bad behavior? Or instead, should they just be considered differences that need to be tolerated? Karen McGee (2008) explains in her article,

“Let’s consider eye contact. Kids from many Latin American and Asian cultures show respect by avoiding the glance of authority figures. A teacher who’s unfamiliar with this cultural norm, however, might interpret the lack of eye contact as just the opposite – a sign of disrespect. For many American Indian children, looking a teacher in the eye and answering her question in front of the class is “showing off.” Yet a teacher who doesn’t know this could think the child was unmotivated or inattentive.” (p. 2)

 It would be easy, as a teacher, to expect that the signs of respect and attention were universal, but, obviously, this is not so.  Differences in cultural behaviors exist, probably in many different ways in one classroom. Therefore, not necessarily helpful to punish based off of the teacher’s cultural background immediately.  Punishing what is considered, by the student, to be correct behavior would only serve to alienate a student and make him or her feel frustrated with their teacher.

To combat this non-verbal miscommunication, an open dialogue is needed. Creating a class set of agreed upon social rules might be a useful place to start. Even further, a teacher explanation as to why his/her rules represent respect in his/her understanding, may make it easier for the students to adhere to what may be ‘foreign’ rules. An open class dialogue about what respect and behavior means to each student may enlighten both the teacher and the students. Ed Keller (2005) states that, “Due to cultural differences, cultural conflict and behavioral problems are more likely to emerge when minorities are unaware of expected cultural or communicative norms.” (2). No matter what option is taken, a teacher cannot expect behavior without explaining it first.

Gardner, W. (2010). Poverty vs. culture in student performance. Retrieved from:

McGee, K. (2008). How cultural differences may affect student performance. Retrieved from:

Keller, E. (2005). Strategies for teaching Hispanic students. Retrieved from:

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