(I really am listening) Trying to understand Lugbara body language.
10.09.2014 25 °C
They say that our body language (facial expressions, gestures and postures) accounts for 55% of how we communicate our feelings to one another. It’s incredible that in this case, what we actually say accounts for only 7% of how we communicate, the other 38% is through the tone we use when we speak.
This means that our body language often gives us away. We say 'you can tell she liked him' or 'he seemed shady' or 'he seemed friendly' from the way that someone is acting. Detectives watch for suspicious behaviour at airports to catch terrorists or to decide if someone might be lying under interrogation. . In the Boston marathon bombing, people later realised that the bombers carrying backpacks were acting very differently to the rest of the crowd watching the race that day. This should have given them away if anyone was paying attention.
In Lifeskills class at the YWAM base on a Wednesday morning, I teach such things as positive body language as part of good communication. For example, it means learning how to actively listen to someone by holding good eye contact, nodding, saying 'mmm-hmm' and even mirroring the other's posture. Being confident when speaking to someone shows that you have nothing to hide. Standing with your feet pointing towards the person who you are talking with shows that you are really engaged with them.
In the African context, however, body language is a completely different thing. Instead of being seen as assertive, a woman who looks into the eyes of a man when she is speaking is seen as rude and 'bad mannered'. A woman who wants to speak to the man or serve him food will kneel down. To show respect to someone older, men and women will avert their gaze and bow slightly, and shake hands while one arm touches the other. Children here curtsy as they shake hands with an older person (Amelie is already doing this, we didn’t prompt her!). Putting your hands on your head shows that you are in mourning. In conversation, friends will sit next to one another and chat without looking at each other. A man who goes for a potential job will show a very submissive body posture, it isn't right for him to come across as confident. Social hierarchy plays a very prominent role in the way people interact.
When I teach Lifeskills in this context, I find it very frustrating. Students in a class give a great respect to the teacher by keeping quiet, having their heads bowed and averting their gaze. To me, therefore, they seem very disengaged, bored and disinterested. It’s really annoying and demoralising! And anyway, my teaching flies right in the face of culture. One lady in the group who shows more assertive body posture to men (such as looking them in the eye) has been labelled by her husband’s friends as ‘stubborn’.
While doing teacher training class recently, Emma was asking a student to demonstrate a ‘sad’ posture. Asking the class what the girl was communicating with her head bowed, hands in pockets and slouched shoulders, the class was silent for a long time. Eventually, the boldest in the class spoke up “She is telling us she wants sex”! It is therefore very easy to make a wrong impression or misinterpret someone…
The Western way of doing things is so different to the Lugbara context in so many aspects. Parenting, marriage and communication are opposite. Culture and worldview have much to say about how society works and our culture's views are very different!
It also brings home to me how often we Westerners can come across as rude, forthright and abrasive in a culture which can display much more deference in many social situations. Western women in Africa, emancipated as they are in the West, are especially prone to mis-understandings.
We chose to come and work in Uganda in the hope of making a difference in small ways amongst those that are suffering, however such deep-rooted cultural differences such as those in communication and body language can bring unexpected challenges and misunderstandings.
Who knows what we have said with our bodies without realising it?