2019 and 2020 have been very powerful years for me thus far. From last year to this year’s complex and disastrous events, my understanding of human nature and the depths of humanity’s complexity and darkness down to a cellular level has increased.
Most of the time, we human beings tend to focus more on the verbal part of communication, what comes out of our mouths and what we say and don’t say. However, I am a very observant person, highly sensitive and can pick up on subtle things other people may frequently overlook. One thing I have paid a LOT of attention to is the power of nonverbal communication. As a kid’s English teacher here in Shanghai for over six years, a creative writer and a Toastmaster, I can say that nonverbal communication is an understated and powerful communication tool.
The eyes are a powerful mode of communication, way more than people realize. I understand deeply why in the American Deep South, during slavery time and Jim Crow time, black people were not allowed to look any white person directly into the eyes. With eye contact and deep, intense eye to eye gazing, comes a very subtle form of power and confirmation of one’s presences and existence. There is power, a deep power and this was definitely known and understood by the white slave masters and other white people during Jim Crow. This is why they used this as a way to control black folks.
In my personal experience, I have found that an eye to eye gaze between me and my student’s is very effective for different reasons. By looking deeply into their eyes, keeping and holding their gaze, whether to teach them something, make sure they understand something or discipline them, it is a powerful tool. Often, I will walk over to my kid who is not paying attention or acting up and I will say nothing but just look at them, stare them directly into their eyes. I give them a stern look, a look that says, STRAIGHTEN UP AND CUT IT OUT! With no words, only the eyes. Most of the time, it works. They stop misbehaving and behave themselves.
I have experienced locking eye to eye with some of my students and seeing them communicate with me thru their eyes only. Some kids communicate frustration, a dislike of being in the class, not necessarily liking me or liking me a whole lot through their stares. One time, I received an intense stare from a new kid that joined my class and it sent shivers down my spine. The initial coldness and eeriness behind his stare shocked me. Later on, after he got used to me, he didn’t give me such a cold stare anymore. I have also received a deeply confused gaze from different students who have no clue what I am talking about, but won’t say anything, and instead just look at me. Other kids communicate their upcoming naughtiness to me in a mischievous gleam I spot in their eyes. Finally, I have had only a couple of my students give me a unique gaze. When we connected eye to eye, they would look at me as if they could see straight into my soul. It is very difficult to put into words the feelings I had; it has only happened with two students. That experience has been rare and I guess if I were not a sensitive person, maybe I wouldn’t have even noticed it. There are many different things that some kids can communicate through their eyes only. It is very spontaneous and fascinating.
Often times when I am out, especially on the metro or bus or in a store or something, I get a LOT of stares off and on. People stare at me a lot, especially older people, particularly older females. When older women stare at me, the feeling behind their stares varies. Sometimes I can sense jealousy and envy of them for me behind their looks. Other times, I feel there is an amazement, sense of awe or curiosity in their stare. Usually, some younger and older men stare at me and at certain times, I can feel and get a sense that they are mesmerized or enjoying my look and beauty, through the eyes only. Other times, I encounter men and they look me up and down and have this look or stare of bewilderment and curiousness. Then sometimes, they will stare at me with an intense look of disdain, irritation or downright hatred. I must say, I have not encountered that very often from men, but when I did encounter it, it was from men who looked very very creepy and had a strange, yucky aura that I could feel. I will never forget, one time I was walking down Husong Highway here in Shanghai and I passed a group of Chinese Muslim men walking past me. One of these men gave me this look and to me there was so much behind that look it was scary. It seemed to be mixed with hatred, disdain and contempt for me as a woman. This is the feeling that I got at that time. Fortunately I don’t encounter that type of look to often but it was a bit frightening when I did.
Along with eye contact I found another powerful nonverbal communication mechanism is silence. The phrase “silence is golden” is so simple and true. The nature of silence is one in which it can be used in a number of ways in addition to other nonverbal communication devices to help you convey a point or even dissolve a conflict situation. How one can use it in powerful ways is only realized through practice and trial and error, so to speak. In my experiences, it wields its own power.
Again, in class, sometimes if the kids just act up so badly and are acting a freaking fool, I will stop class and we will just exist in silence for a minute or two. No words spoken and I always will use the hand gesture of an X to my mouth to motion to the kids to be quiet and STAY quiet. Silence can be a powerful thing. Sometimes I won’t even do the motion to be quiet, I just stand there and say nothing. I will give them all a firm, intense look and most of the time they get it and will follow suit. It is a powerful tool and can effectively replace the need to yell at them sometimes.
Another way silence can be used is when one is about to start a speech. When I walk onto stage after being introduced at any of my Toastmasters club meetings, sometimes I will just stand there in silence for about 30 seconds. I stand there and use it as a time for people to focus on me. We are all addicted to our smartphones and I find that this is an excellent tool to use as a sort of “warm up” for the audience and it works well in helping them draw attention to me as the speaker.
Another form of nonverbal communication that can be very powerful is body language. Often, I find that communicating using body movement can help show others powerful messages. When I cross the street and it is my turn to cross and a car still insists on coming, I put my hand up while it farther back in a manner to denote stop and it works. Also when I cross the street and cars are inching and itching to go forward, even though they should not, I use eye contact and the hand gesture of stop to get their attention. I will note I am always cautious and alert while crossing any street anywhere, these are just extra things that go along with the crossing task at hand.
In different parts of the world, different hand gestures and body movements mean different things. I think that while learning the customs of a particular country and culture, one should also engage in the act of people watching and observing. Watching how people interact with each other teaches you a lot about various styles of communication. Since last year, I have done this more and more and I have been amazed by how much I have learned.
When we pay attention to the life around us, we can learn a lot of powerful lessons and messages. As a result of doing this more intently since last year, my understanding of human nature and the depths of humanity’s complexities has increased. I hope everyone can find a way to do this. Although the world is in the midst of chaos in many places, still, we can do what we can to improve our own understanding of the world. When we understand the world and humans better, we can function better individually and collectively. When we watch, observe and pay better attention to nonverbal communication and its effects upon how people and children communicate with each other, we can become better communicators.