The Unspoken Communication of Body Language

by Valentina Gonzalez

“What seems logical, sensible, important, and reasonable to a person in one culture may seem irrational, silly, unimportant, and just plain ridiculous to an outsider.”

– Dr. Michelle Yzquierdo

Verbal communication holds value, but what we communicate with our body language also reveals the feelings and emotions behind our words. The tricky part is that the meaning of body language differs around the world. When we work with students and families from around the globe, being conscience of what we “say” nonverbally becomes particularly important.

Body language can send a message that we are approachable and relatable, that we care and are in this together. On the other hand, body language can also say, “Don’t ask me. I don’t accept you. You are alone in this.” When a student is learning a new culture, a new language, and new academic content, feeling welcome and supported greatly benefits the student and helps accelerate progress. The opposite is also true. Environments that create stress and feelings of loneliness and isolation hinder progress.

Without saying a word, we can convey messages both positive and negative using a wide range of body language signals:

  • Posture
  • Gestures
  • Eyes
  • Touch
  • Proximity
  • Facial expressions


Let’s look at two scenarios:

Imagine that you are a fifth grade student who has moved to Brazil, and you haven’t learned Portuguese yet.

The teacher places you at a desk by yourself while the other students sit in groups. As the teacher walks around the room, she avoids your desk. You raise your hand, and she comes toward your area but not too close, arms folded, head down with her eyes squinting at you. When you ask for help in English, she shrugs, rolls her eyes, and turns to walk away.

Now imagine a similar scenario with a twist. Fifth grade, Brazil, etc. But this time the teacher seats you with a group of students. She pats you on the shoulder and smiles, saying words you don’t yet understand but with eyes that meet yours and and a head nod that tells you to follow what the others are doing. You look around and mimic your classmates. The teacher walks back to you often, stopping by your shoulder and nodding with a smile of approval. You smile back.

The two scenarios above demonstrate the power non-verbals hold. Our goal is to create optimal conditions for learning. What we say has impact, but we convey with our body language also carries much weight. This continues to hold true when working with parents and families of our students. Being intentional and mindful about how we use body language is important.

Knowing some common cultural differences in body language can help prevent us from misunderstanding non-verbals. In some cultures, it is common to greet one another with a hug or kiss on the cheek rather than a handshake. Though eye contact may be considered important for us, in Japan, too much is considered embarrassing. In other cultures it can be considered as a challenge, while in the Middle East, eye contact between opposite sexes is sometimes seen as inappropriate. In the United States and many other countries, thumbs up is known as a symbol of yes or good, however in some countries giving a thumbs up is a seen as a rude and sexual symbol. Dr. Yzquierdo shares an excellent chart with many other differences called Aspects of Culture in her book, Pathways to Greatness for ELL Newcomers.  

In their book, Unlocking English Learners’ Potential, Diane Staehr Fenner and Sydney Snyder write that “it is important to recognize what is considered appropriate body language in U.S. culture may not be appropriate in other cultures…” She suggests that some English learners will need explicit instruction about culturally appropriate body language. Using a checklist with desired outcomes may help English learners as they begin to understand cultural norms in the United States.

Understanding body language in the classroom is multifaceted. Not only do we as educators need to be conscience of how we use it, we also need to be familiar with how body language from around the world differs, and we need to be prepared to model and teach students the cultural norms of body language in the United States.

By getting to know our learners and creating conditions that promote learning, we can accelerate language and academic progress. So I challenge you to stop and consider, what is your non-verbal communication conveying  to students and families?



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