Wednesday, February 18, 2009

LPOD - body language

Today's learning point is more of a thinking point.

I attended an online session of the AACE group today. The presenter was Teemu Arina who was challenging us to consider new ways of engaging learners online. But the point I want to bring out actually arose from the back channel.

Sidelight: it's quite often the case that the most interesting conversations arise out of tangential exchanges on the back channel, which is why I don't understand why anyone would object to its existence - after all, the presentation is recorded and you can always come back to it. The back channel is immediate and spontaneous as people don't tend to have the time to editorialise their thoughts before the conversation moves on. Of course, it is also recorded, but when you're reading this stream of out-of-context text, it loses a lot of its punch.


The discussion was round body language. There were those present in the session who felt that f2f presentation would always have the advantage over online presentations because of the advantage offered by body language. One attendee made the very valid point that body language can also be a distinct disadvantage. This challenged several people's thinking and divided the responses. One person flatly disagreed, saying that 'body language is truth', to which I responded 'Whose truth?'

Let's think about this for a moment. In many parts of Africa, it is considered very rude to look into the eyes of a person you don't know well. In the western world, you would consider someone who didn't make eye contact rude, or perhaps shifty.

In some parts of the world, we nod to say yes and shake our heads to say no. In other parts it's the reverse. I forget whether it's Indians or Pakistanis (maybe both) who waggle their heads from side to side in the vertical plane, and I have no idea whether that means yes or no.

Some cultures poke themselves in the chest with thumb or forefinger to indicate 'me' or 'I'. Others point at their faces. There are enormous cultural variations in the way we say 'come here' or in the way we insult one another.

Some body language - both deliberately communicative and subliminal - can be very culture specific and can be confusing to people from other cultures.

There are also issues of personal body language habit. A person with a tic can, through no fault of their own, prove quite a distraction from their own presentation. I have a habit of twirling my hair around my fingers. I have done it all my life and it drives my mother scatty. No doubt it drives a few other people scatty, too - especially when I use my right hand, which results in the clanking of my millionty five bangles (mind you, I usually remove those for a f2f workshop). If you were sitting in on an online presentation I delivered, you would be spared that irritation.

While I can see why people like to see the body language of the presenter, but I would argue that it is not always an advantage, and it certainly doesn't always foster improved understanding!

And I would urge caution before calling it 'truth'.


V Yonkers said...

Excellent post. There are so many other examples of "body language" or "non-verbal language" that can be misinterpreted. For example, turn taking is usually understood within a face to face situation but it is not so obvious with multiple cultures. Americans tend to want complete silence as they are speaking and the speaker (as long as they maintain speaking) decides when someone can "jump in". On the other hand, when I taught in Costa Rica, multiple conversations were allowed and even encouraged.

In an online venue, because of the distortion of communication that technology creates, rules are usually spelled out (i.e. raise your hand if you want to speak, I will not answer comments/I will answer comments as I give the presentation).

It bothers me to think of "non-verbal" or body language as being truthful. Whose truth? Who is interpreting it? In fact, a person with asberger's (a form of autism) would not be able to read these non-verbal cues so they would miss them.

The upsycho said...

@Virginia Ah yes, thanks for picking up on the Asperger's thing - it was in my mind to cover it when I started the post, but it slipped quietly out of one of my ears before making it into print!