Do Good Honest

The Impact of Nonverbal Communication

Carly Fister recently shared the below image on her Instagram – taken for a nonverbal communication project she took part in disrupting the social norm. It immediately resonated within and made us at TFW step back and take a look at our own lives. Intrigued to know and learn more, we took the opportunity to ask Carly a few questions:

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Hey Carly, can you tell us a bit about the purpose of the project and what you did to prepare for it?

“Illness and/or lack of health affect communication in a variety of ways. This assignment is designed to allow you to explore how some type of physical disability or appearing outside of the norm impacts communication.” – introduction of the Nonverbal Identity Assignment as taken from the syllabus

This project pairs you up randomly with another student in the class and allows the pair to choose anything they want to disrupt the social norm. People do anything from having crutches, using a surgical mask as if going through chemotherapy or having an autoimmune disorder (although this term everyone thought they had Ebola), using a fake pregnancy belly and dressing what we shall describe as risqué then going to a bar, pretending to be blind, deaf, or mute. You name it and someone has done it. There were a few rules though, the most important being that we treat this project with respect and under no circumstances are to take breaks; “doing so would diminish your experience, and undermine the reality of people with disabilities or illnesses or stigmas.

I went through a few ideas of what to do. Around Halloween when I saw all of the make-up people used for their costumes, I decided on some kind of scar. Starting with a normal scar one gets from a knife or something, until eventually settling on the burn scar. I watched a lot of tutorials and practiced several times, sending pictures to my friends and family to see how realistic it looked. I wanted to make sure everything was perfect.

Before you started the project, how did you think (or hope) people would respond?

It was hard to tell how people would react. Once I (finally) settled on a burn scar I hoped for a few different outcomes. Ideally, people would be shocked and I would have a few big reactions to give my journal and paper something to draw on. The academic in me really wanted something exciting to happen, like a child making a big deal about the scar or that kind of thing. But another part of me hoped that I wouldn’t be treated any differently because of my appearance. I think that’s why I chose a scar – it was nothing that I could have prevented and I would live with it forever; something most people recognize. I wanted society to pleasantly surprise and accept me, despite the fact that my face wasn’t necessarily “normal.”

How did they respond?

Most just wanted to ignore me. No one made eye contact or stood too close. It was a lot of double takes and glancing away really quickly if they thought I saw them. My monitor and I were out shopping and wandering around an Outlet shopping center so there was forced interaction, such as with the retail workers and other shoppers. Shoppers kept their distance for the most part, and I even think some were too wrapped up in their own worlds to notice me. One shopper pulled her young child away from me after seeing my scar. But the employees ranged from uncomfortable to rude – refusing to speak to me unless they absolutely had to, making sure not to touch my hand when I checked out or looking over my shoulder instead of making eye contact (when they bothered to look up at all). I sort of expected that reaction, but it didn’t make it hurt any less.

One retail employee really surprised me in the best way. Going into a store like PacSun, I had no expectations of kindness from her, and initially, she seemed shocked by my scar and glanced away like everyone else. But after her shock subsided, she treated me like any other customer; helping me make decisions about clothes, talking with me, getting me a dressing room. I was sorry that I didn’t find anything I could buy from her because I was so grateful to her for treating me like a person instead of a pariah. For the entirety of our project, she was the only person who made me feel normal and interacted with me like a regular person.

What did you learn throughout this process and how has it impacted your everyday living now?

The biggest thing I learned was that you never know what someone is going through. It feels like such a cliché, but it is so true. I think the majority of people avoided me in a misguided attempt to make me feel more at ease. Maybe they didn’t want to stare and seem rude or draw attention to me, and before this project I might have done the same thing. But after going through this experience I know that all anyone wants is to be treated with kindness and respect. That doesn’t mean stare and point and laugh, but make eye contact, smile, say hello, and interact with your fellow humans as you always do. Don’t ever think that by avoiding the person you are doing them a kindness, because all it does is make them feel alone and embarrassed.

How can we, as individuals and a collective, work at being more mindful of and inclusive with our nonverbal communication?

Essentially, treat everyone like they matter, because they do. Their feelings are justified and they are important. You never know what that person went through. I was stressing out trying to come up with a back story in case anyone asked about the burn. I didn’t want to make some big dramatic story about how I was in a terrible fire or abused or anything that seemed over the top, but I couldn’t think of a simple answer to how I got a huge burn on my face. It turns out my worries were unfounded because not a single person asked. But whether it came from a traumatic life event or something simple, it is part of that person. Avoiding the person to make you feel less uncomfortable doesn’t help anyone.

Nonverbally, just be mindful of how you respond to people. It can be difficult to control our nonverbal responses, but small things like eye contact, proximity (I was shocked by how many people gave me a wide berth instead of standing anywhere near me), and plain old conversation (i.e. pitch, inflection, etc. of your voice—these things can express your discomfort just as if you said it!) are all I wanted while I participated in this project. Everyone just wants to feel normal and comfortable in their own skin.

Brilliant! Thanks, Carly!

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