luni, 3 mai 2010

What do we say when we do not say anything

Nonverbal communication refers to all forms of communication between people that do not involve speaking abilities. In fact, all our gestures can be deemed as such. The way we walk, sit down or stand up, salute, utter the words or shake hands constitutes what we generally call nonverbal communication.

When trying to communicate, we must be aware of all the details that practically make up the message that we sometimes convey even without wanting to, especially without wanting to.
Most of the nonverbal communication principles are derived from the psychological observation of human behavior. The last century refined the way we understand our own conduct. Thus, we are more careful about our gestures that can give away what we say when we do not say anything. Every negotiator knows that the way we shake hands speaks about our character: if we extend the hand with the palm inclined downwardly, we let others know we have a dominant personality. If the palm is upwardly inclined, we demonstrate a subservient attitude.

Psychological explanations do not exhaust the multitude of nonverbal communication aspects. Every one of us has a distinct spiritual heritage, which shapes our world vision, thus imprinting on our minds certain behavioral patterns. Therefore, a very important role plays in the way we communicate our cultural background.

A friend of mine went to Tunisia, and he visited the beautiful sites this African country has to show the tourists. At some point, he arrived to the Bazar. As he was gazing at the immense amount of merchandise displayed by the local merchants, his eye was caught by a narghile. He asked about the price, and the merchant told him, with a large smile upon his face, that the narghile in question was worth 100 Euros. My friend was very close to a heart attack. He told him he would never pay that money for such an item. The trader asked: ‘Why not? It is no ordinary narghile’. Then, he began telling an incredible 1001 Nights fairy tale about his narghile. It had been forged in Syria, our merchant explained, and its component parts had been brought from all over the Islamic world. And so, he went on describing the beauty of Syria, and the richards of Iran, the modernity of Turkey and the beauty of the women in Marocco. When he finished, he sold my friend the precious narghile for 10 Euros. And he invited him to come back for more. How did my friend convince him to cut down to 10% of the initial demand? He talked to him. In fact, he didn’t even talk. He listened to him. For Arabs, trade is not all about making profit; it is about meeting people, sharing thoughts, ideas, experiences. Trade is about establishing a communion between people. Does it surprise us then that the founder of the Islamic religion was a merchant? The moral of the story is that we can trade to our advantage with an Arab, if we know this little detail. Arabs hate Westerners who dig into their pockets and pay the requested money without bargaining a little.

I know a very classy Greek gentleman who lives in my town. Like all Greeks, he is a devout of the Orthodox Christian faith. His moral conduct is an inspiration to all of us. And yet, he managed to appall our entire Christian congregation. How? On one Sunday, at the end of the liturgical office, he went out into the church yard and… lit a cigarette. Everybody eyeballed at him. It took a lot of explaining to convince the Romanian parishioners that in Greece smoking has no moral strings attached, and the man meant no disrespect. Had he remembered in time that Romanians think smoking is a certified way to hell, he would have saved himself a whole lot of trouble.

There was a time when, in order to get home, I had to walk across a Gypsy neighborhood. All my friends advised me against it, fearing for my safety. Yet, I never hesitated to take that route. It is not about courage or open-mindedness. It is about information. I knew that Gypsies do not attack people in their neighborhood for obvious reasons: they do not want to draw police attention to their houses or families.

There are a lot of cultural aspects that must be taken into account, so that we are in control of what we say when we do not say anything. We must know how people we interact with perceive reality. We would not want to place ourselves in the position of a Romanian president, who shook hands with the butlers at Champs-Elysee, would we?

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