Wednesday, November 10, 2010

How Do You Clown Around?

20091020chaiken0010Several nights ago I was watching a program on PBS called “Circus.” The makers of this documentary followed a  traveling circus company called Big Apple Circus and filmed the shows and what happens behind the scenes. Prior to watching this program I was trying to think about the best way to start this article, which focuses on non-verbal communication. Then I saw a clown. The clown’s name was “Grandma,” ironically played by a man, Barry Lubin. “She” had a white face, red lips, a big red nose, glasses, a curly wig, a red dress and big brown satchel.
I thought, “Wow – this guy doesn’t talk much, but he really connects with his audience.” As the documentary went on I saw more and more clowns and I noticed some things that clowns do to communicate with the audience that don’t involve words: exaggerated movements, colorful make-up, elastic faces, funny costumes, and outrageous props.
Consider a clown’s make-up as a channel of communication. The traditional white-face coloring seems to allow the individual playing a clown to create a new persona, which is what Lubin did. Suppose he or she paints on high eyebrows which, to me, exhibits excitement, surprise, interest, and friendliness – so many engaging emotions by simply drawing a couple of lines above his or her eyes. The red lips, depending on how they are painted on, can make one a sad clown or a happy clown. We can quickly and readily identify with the clown’s mood by which way the lips’ corners are pointing.
What about in an interview setting?
Interviewer: “Tell me about yourself.”
Interviewee: Joe pauses, says um several times, looks down at the floor, slumps back in his chair and begins his response with a hesitant vocal inflection. Joe makes fleeting eye contact, stumbles over his words, and touches his face in a nervous manner.
When I conduct a mock interview with somebody I’m often listening with my eyes. There is a lot of information in the above scenario that is not expressed in words. In this situation Joe came across nervous, unsure and unprepared before he even started talking. Let’s take a look at Joe’s interview from a few perspectives:
Joe’s Voice. There are clues in Joe’s voice (also called vocal paralanguage) that provide a lot of insight. How something is said is often more important than words alone, or what is said. Vocal paralanguage, which is very subtle, but interpreted keenly by our ears, includes: pronunciations, national accent, regional accent, emotion, charisma, sarcasm, deference, contempt, truth, deception, fluency or dysfluency, and standard of non-standard speech. Joe’s hesitancy to speak and his bumbled response suggest to the listener that he is unsure of himself and that he lacks confidence.
Joe’s Face. The face, or the “mirror of the mind,” is a very powerful channel of communication. Joe looked down searching for the answer to the question, and he didn’t maintain good eye contact. Eye contact is perhaps the most important aspect of nonverbal communication. In Western culture eye contact is viewed as a meaningful and important sign of confidence and social communication. When a person maintains eye contact he or she is perceived as relaxed, friendly and sincere. The mouth, another part of the face with a considerable number of expressions, is also an important means of communication. How do you react when you see a person smiling, frowning, or exhibiting frustration or surprise? Think of a sad clown and a happy clown. What helps us know if he or she is happy or sad? Perhaps we can understand the clown’s mood because our eyes naturally focus on a person’s face, which is where we innately view and interpret the communication exhibited via an individual’s mouth, both audibly and visually. 
Joe’s Body Language. Joe didn’t have very good body language – he was slumped in his chair. He would have had good interviewing body language if he were sitting erect and leaning slightly forward, which communicates that he is approachable, receptive and friendly. Someone sitting in a firm, erect position communicates that he or she is taking charge; slouching may indicate that a person is not interested; and slumping communicates that a person is defeated. Even something as subtle as how a person is leaning impacts his or her communication with another person. In a book titled Nonverbal Communication, Albert Mehrabian discussed the “lean factor” – “a forward lean conveys greater liking, whereas a backward lean, or turning away, shows a more negative attitude.”
The example of Joe’s interview and its analysis reflects Western culture’s perceptions of nonverbal communication. While many of the above examples are shared among different cultures, there are many differences as well. Vocal paralanguage, personal space and eye contact are several nonverbal characteristics that can significantly vary among different cultures. For example, it is considered disrespectful in some cultures to maintain strong eye contact with a person. In Western culture an individual who is not familiar with a particular culture that avoids eye contact may become frustrated or offended. Becoming more culturally aware can help one better understand the nonverbal customs different cultures value.
You can see from the example above how powerful and important non-verbal communication can be. Joe most likely impressed a negative image of himself on the interviewer before he even began answering the first question. There are a couple of ways to better understand your nonverbal communication in an interview setting. A mock interview with a career development professional can provide insight into your interview style. Additionally, reviewing a video recorded mock interview can provide excellent insight into your nonverbal habits in an interview setting. These techniques can help you become more self-aware of your nonverbal communication habits.
~ Eric Chaiken, Career Management Counselor

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