Nonverbal communication and the social construction of meaning

“Lecture” Eight

[Note: The structure of the class has shifted by the time I write this. Now, instead of me (as teacher) presenting information for the students; the students are presenting information for each other – and me. Structurally, I tried to run three simultaneous “conversations” (three team presentations, each on a different topic). It might have worked, except that I got content mixed up between two presentations, confusing everyone (including myself!)]
Delivered to the class approximately June 26:
Steph Sticks Her Nose In

Ok folks, I haven’t decided what to do (or how to respond) to my huge botch-up by mixing the Engaging Communication and Communicating with Intimates Presentations. David had a creative solution, though, using the readings from Engaging Communication to analyze the intimate communication between partners in the story he read.
I need to write a bit about the Ahmed Khan reading selected by the Presenters for their Presentation on Nonverbal Communication and also will incorporate a few comments from those of you who just answered the Team’s question about why we misunderstand each other so often.
Khan’s very first sentence gives away the exact, “old” model that I have been (desperately!) trying to teach you to recognize (and ultimately figure out how to “move” away from toward the “new” model about which this entire course revolves. Can you guess, already, where I am going? I certainly hope so! If not, I do have to wonder &emdash; what are you inhaling? How are the nonverbals of communicating monitor-to-monitor coming across to you in such a way that you continue (?) to “miss” The Point?
I’m not quite as frustrated as I probably sound. Sure, I am a little bit &emdash; we all are. And this idea of interweaving three presentations clearly exceeded our collective capacity to manage it well (although I am so impressed that everyone has found ways to “hang in” and “get through”). So, what does Khan say? “Communication, one of the basic needs of human existence, can be defined as the transfer or exchange of information between entities.” Really, I want to fall out of my chair with the OBVIOUSNESS of the transmission model! I do actually know how it was possible for no one to catch this, or &emdash; if you did notice &emdash; to choose not to critique it. First, it was assigned. (That means it must be “good,”, eh? It must be “right”?) Second, it is written. There is a common bias (fostered by education all our lives), that anything written is somehow “more honest, more ‘true’” than things that are said. When you think of lying, do you think of someone writing lies, or of telling them? I am NOT, by the way, accusing Khan of lying! No no no! Only that his conception is rooted in a model of communication that in and of itself leads to most misunderstandings between and among people.
I know that many of you are actually “on” to this, but somehow the overt connection, or the writing of the connection with words that explicitly name the way that the assumptions of “transmission” are (shall I be blunt?) at fault (if we are going to assign blame &emdash; which is not actually my goal, nor my belief, but is a more simple way (?) to try and sink the point enough that it anchors in consciousness awareness).
Taking the last five posted comments (answers to the question about the reading), I will show you where/how you are getting it. Because even though I am concerned that after eight units this knowledge is still so elusive, I know the challenge of the task; you are not just learning “new” information, you are also being asked to unlearn what you have previously taken for granted. This is not easy. So, kudos and congratulations to everyone just for trying!
Natalie and Geoff both say misunderstanding occurs because we do not “correctly employ” or even “use” the methods we know. Of course, I am asking &emdash; what are these “methods”? Which are “the ones” that we could “use properly” that might actually reduce misunderstanding across differences?
If we accept the fact, as Brett writes, that language is not static, that “There are no definitive boundaries” between or among “language systems, whether verbal or nonverbal,” could we not then begin to believe, and &emdash; furthermore &emdash; to act on the belief that meaning cannot BE “in” you, or “in” me, or “in” what I say, or “in” whatever nonverbal signal you give off, would we not eliminate many of the sources of misunderstanding? Doesn’t misunderstanding usually come from the assumption that I know?
I started earlier to write about why it is so hard for you to notice and/or respond (write) in such a way that shows the “new” social construction way of thinking about communication. I want to encourage you all to revisit the early reading from Pearce, because he writes about the limitations of the English language, as a language, in trying to express where meaning comes from. Heather captured this notion, somewhat, in her discussion of the role of personality in communication with her boyfriend: “qualities which we have developed throughout our lives limit our abilities to resolve situations and communicate better.”
This course has brought “the limits” &emdash; of our language (English) and our habits (of assuming there exists “a right meaning” that can be simply “moved” from me to you, or you to me) into our faces. (Much more intensely than I ever imagined; I most certainly did not plan for or ever desire as much confusion and stress as has been generated.)
Ok, let me take one instance from Khan’s article and show you how the transmission way of thinking is expressed. He writes,

“For instance, if you nod by moving your head up and down, in India it means a concurrence, a “yes,” whereas the same gesture in, say, Kuwait would mean the exact opposite, a dissent, a “no.”

How can this not be true, not be “right” as a way of explaining a nonverbal mode of communication? Because Khan says “it means.” He writes that it is the head nod that “has” meaning. He shows that a head nod can mean different things in different places among different peoples (different cultures, different languages) but he does not say why or how, only that ”it is.” (If we were actually in a classroom I would probably be jumping up and down or rolling on the floor &emdash; literally &emdash; to emphasize this point: head nods ”have” NO inherent meaning! The “meaning” is not “in” the nod. The meaning is “in” the ways that people within certain cultural/linguistic groups have interacted with and interpreted “head nodding” in relation to whatever is being nodded about!
So, one the one hand, yes, it can be very simplistically said that a certain nonverbal gesture “means” something in a given context, but it is false to assume that just because a historically or traditionally generated meaning is characteristic, that this meaning is either always true or unchanging. This is the linguistic counterpart to stereotyping. Instead of assuming that a person of this or that “type” must be this or that way (a stereotype), we assume that this or that word or gesture must be this or that meaning.
We misunderstand because we refuse to believe, or to develop and use the skills based on the belief, that we are the ones creating meaning right here and now.

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