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Native Pathways to Education
Alaska Native Cultural Resources
Indigenous Knowledge Systems
Indigenous Education Worldwide

A Film Study of Classrooms

in Western Alaska


This study has looked at pace and flow as part of the communication process in cross-cultural situations. The importance of non-verbal aspects in interactions appear to be related largely to their role in defining the context of the communication. An interrelationship of content, often referred to as “information,’ and context produces the meaning of a communication. The nature of this interrelationship appears to vary from culture to culture. Some cultures place more emphasis on the contextual aspects of the interaction and some emphasize the information, or content, aspects of the process. Non-verbal behavior and systems tend to be contextual in function while verbal forms, particularly written words, tend to be more informational in character. Most Americans, particularly in the academic community, have been trained to emphasize content and information while deemphasizing or disregarding context (Hall 1974: 18-21). We are correspondingly insensitive to many non-verbal signals and phenomena, and we often experience difficulties when interacting with people who place different emphasis and meanings on matters of context. This situation helps to explain the relative neglect of non-verbal aspects of interactions in communication studies and the heavy emphasis on linguistics. From our content-dominated concept of communication, many non-verbal aspects of interactions are not communication at all because they transmit no information.

Pace and flow are important in the communication process because they are part of the immediate context. Their contexting function takes a number of forms; and, they have an equally important function of organizing and facilitating the general process of communication.

Pace was originally described in this study as the speed at which people move and do things, as well as the manner in which they use time and organized processes in time. Most of my discussion of pace’ in the analysis of the Alaskan footage was restricted to the rate at which people moved and did things on a short-term basis.

Pace patterns vary from culture to culture and are quite stable for any given circumstance within a culture. This stability, which was an obvious characteristic of pace patterns in this film analysis, is a key to one of the functions of pace in communications. It provides a temporal framework within which to structure interactions; it also provides a pattern of speed of movement to guide people’s actions which do not have to be improvised anew for each interaction. This not only provides guidelines for behavior, but also helps to define the significance or meaning of the interaction. If we make a social call on someone we know, there is an appropriate time for the visit as well as an appropriate rate and style of behavior and movements. If we extend the visit beyond the appropriate time, it changes the nature of the visit, and our host is likely to begin to wonder what we came for. Obviously, it is for more than a “social” visit and we must then make appropriate actions to explain ourselves or risk being considered impolite. Likewise, if we move too quickly or slowly during this visit, it may be taken to mean that something is wrong and may also make the process of communication difficult. This last aspect of pace, as a facilitator of communication, is related to flow and has the function of providing an agreed-upon rate of movement which makes interactions smooth and helps reduce or eliminate any sensation of friction or lack of communication. Without some pattern of shared pace, other aspects of flow are almost impossible. This film study was filled with examples of difficulties related to this aspect of pace.

Generally, pace sets the timetable and rate for other parts of the communication process. When timetables are not shared, the parties involved have a hard time getting together and communication suffers. In certain circumstances, changes in the timetable or conflicting interpretations of its significance may lead to serious misunderstandings about what is being communicated (Hall 1967: 18).

Flow, which I have described as the interrelating of movements in interactions between or among people, is equally important. Many of the aspects of pace which make it important in communications are important because they affect the nature of flow.

Flow has several main functions. When people meet, the subtleties of the interrelationship of their movements serve as clues to the nature of the relationship and the possibility of communication. Rapid and comfortable adjustment of movements, so that they become interrelated in a smooth fashion, creates a context favorable to communication on various levels, as well as implicitly stating, “We share some things in common and should be able to comprehend each other.” As an interaction continues, the pattern of flow that develops reflects and reinforces the course of the interaction. If things are going well, the motions of the participants become smooth and well synchronized, having little friction or oppositional movements and serving to reinforce the process and make it easier. There is the implicit message of, ëWe are in tune.” If things go badly, with misunderstandings, missed cues and general discomfort, the resulting friction of movement caused by lack of synchronization reflects and reinforces the negative aspects of the situation. The contrast between Head Start and prefirst in the film study reflected these contrasting patterns of flow and results. Subtleties of conflicts of pace and flow are often detected before difficulties on other levels hay’ a real chance to develop on their own. There are times when differences on this non-verbal level predestine communications on other levels to failure. This is particularly true in cross-cultural circumstances where participants expect to encounter difficulties. While verbal misunderstandings and confusion take a while to develop, non-verbal signals are highly contextual and are transmitted very rapidly (Hall 1974: 18). Non-verbal signals predispose participants to difficulties on the verbal level almost before they begin. These non-verbal signals are, of course, not limited to matters of pace and flow but also include other proxemic and kinesic factors.

These functions of pace and flow were probably in operation in the situations filmed in Alaska. As discussed in the concluding section of the analysis, the two Head Start teachers were known by the children from having shared prior experiences, similar interests, or family ties. The fact that they operated at the same pace, moved the same way, and were able to integrate their movements with those of the children and the children with theirs, served to reinforce constantly the positive apsects of the relationship and to make communication in the classroom easier. Everyone expected smooth communication, and all the behavior in individual or specific interactions served to confirm the expectation. With the Anglo teachers, the reverse was generally the case. The sharp differences in pace and movements with the resulting lack of flow served to confirm their distance from the Native children and adults and the difficulty of communicating with them. Extreme cases of lack of flow, for example, the dancing sequence in the kindergarten class or the alphabet sequence in the same room, are probably so disruptive to the communication process that the verbal messages are practically unheard, let alone understood. The teachers who made some adjustments in pace, movements or structuring of processes, and developed some degree of smooth flow with the children received considerably higher verbal comprehension from the children.

People must have some sharing of patterns in three areas of nonverbal communication in order for smooth flow to develop. These are pace, proxemics and movement style (part of kinesics). Pace and its role in flow have already been discussed, and the function of the other two are relatively obvious. Even if people are moving at the same pace, if one has linear, angular movements, it is going to be difficult for flow to develop if the other s movements tend to be circular or rounded. Mr. Principal is an example of a person whose kinesic patterns as well as his pace made interaction with the children in his class difficult.

Proxemic considerations are important in any interaction. A smooth flow of movements is possible only when proxemic expectations have been met. Factors of what kinds of movements are “proper” in a given proxemic relationship limit the movements and responses that are possible. In the film study it was noted that the Eskimo aides and teachers operated much closer to the children than most of the non-Native teachers. Close distance was also characteristic of many interactions in village and home scenes as well as in the cases where Anglo teachers developed smoother and more intense communications with the children. It is possible that most of the Anglo teachers operated much of the time at what the children considered impersonal distance requiring little response or interaction. All these factors combined made developing good communication almost impossible in many of the classes. The Anglo teachers who did well had all made alterations or adjustments which served to minimize differences in at least one of the three areas.

It would seem that pace and flow are, together with other aspects of non-verbal communication, important factors which can alter the course and perhaps the meaning of interactions. What are some of the implications of such a conclusion?

In the past it was common for fieldworkers to go through a ritualistic process of attempting to learn something of the language of the people they were studying. This ritual had ideological as well as practical justifications. Then and now, a standard tenent of anthropology was that at least a minimal knowledge of a people’s language was necessary in order to have a proper comprehension of their culture. This belief, no doubt valid, reflected also a heavy emphasis in anthropological thought on the role of verbal communication, language, in culture which reached a sort of zenith with the theoretical work done and inspired by Sapir and Whorf. This theoretical view of the world may be paraphrased as: “We are what we speak”; “We think the way we talk”; and “The world is the way we name it.” This emphasis on language reflected anthropological awareness that communication was critical to cultural processes, but it also reflected the verbal, content-oriented conception of communication common in the modern academic world.

Studies in non-verbal systems of culture suggest that some modification in this emphasis may be appropriate. Even language’s role in cognition, or reasoning, is somewhat in question since recent investigations suggest that reasoning does not necessarily require the use of words or symbols (Hall 1974: 20). It seems that communication, cognition, perception and other aspects of culture which serve to shape our conception of events and our place in them are more complex and multidimensional than they are generally conceived to be. There is a general lack in anthropology of awareness of non-verbal and contextual matters. This partially explains why many anthropological studies, dependent as they are on verbal information and presented in verbal form (written), seem to people from the cultures they describe either to be shallow or to be about someplace else; contextual factors tend to be left out or missed in the first place.

Since many contextual matters are perceived or interpreted nonverbally, they may be processed by a different portion of the brain than verbal inputs (Hall 1974: 18-20). It is problematical whether or not they can be reduced to verbal or written forms. Maybe there is cultural knowledge or experience which cannot be comprehended or transmitted cross-culturally because it is linked to contextual relationships that cannot be duplicated or transmitted in verbal form.

The implications for anthropology are that changes may have to be made in the education and training of anthropologists as well as in the practice of the profession in the field. Perhaps many aspects of culture cannot be reduced to verbal abstractions except at a cost in depth and significance (Hall 1974: 18; R. Rundstrom: private communication). Such a realization would require a major overhaul in the teaching of anthropology since few institutions offer courses in non-verbal aspects of culture let alone incorporate that knowledge into their regular course offerings.

Few general texts in anthropology devote any time to non-verbal communication and other aspects of people’s use of space and time. Yet these are the very texts which present the basic knowledge and viewpoints of anthropology to beginning students and to people who will never explore further in the field.

If such non-verbal information cannot be reduced to verbal forms, there would have to be changes in storing and transmitting such knowledge with less emphasis on verbal or written forms. The increased interest in ethnographic film reflects a trend in this direction, but as yet most of these tend to be pictorial representations of information already reduced to verbal forms rather than something that cannot be conveyed in any other way.

Corresponding changes would have to be made in fieldwork methods. These are the implications of the study of non-verbal aspects of cultures in general. This study concerned itself with only a few aspects of nonverbal communication. Since it appears that pace and flow, like proxemic systems, are quite stable patterns which people may not think about a great deal, it is important that a fieldworker or any person working in a cross-cultural circumstance be sensitized to the existence of differences of this kind. This might make it easier for them to comprehend some of their own frustrations in communications as well as enable them to take steps to mitigate some of the inevitable conflicts. This would require that they be able to observe other people’s pace and flow styles to some degree and see how they are different from their own. They must learn to see, to be aware. The importance of trying to make accommodations on the level of pace and flow is that the primary function of pacing seems to be to facilitate interactions. The sooner a person can make the interaction comfortable, the easier it will be to develop communication on all levels, including the interchange of verbal information.

This raises the question of the degree to which non-verbal systems, like pace and flow, can be taught. There is not much information or knowledge regarding this issue at the present time. Possibly some things can be taught or be learned by an outsider and others cannot. Contextual systems take a long time to acquire. It may be that some cannot be learned except by being a lifetime member of a culture (Hall 1974: 18). My own experience in this field makes me certain that there are contextual aspects of situations which change the meaning of events which cannot be explained in verbal or written form.

If a person’s activities extend beyond observation and inyolve teaching, direction of projects, or other applied work, other aspects of pace and flow also become important. An outsider needs to learn the rate at which things are ëë supposed’’ to get done and the relative pacing and importance of different stages of processes. In this fashion, one can avoid spending time on aspects of processes considered insignificant locally as well as ensure the smooth transfer of information and implementation of the process as a whole. In schools this might mean complete changes in the scheduling of lessons, as well as the direct presentation of materials. Above all, it would require active, but necessarily subtle, structuring of interrelationships so that people of the culture can themselves set the pace and flow patterns of a situation. Finally, an outsider must realize that s/he is never going to have the potential for communications that someone in the group has and that therefore, s/he should emphasize those activities or functions for which they have special qualifications, rather than duplicate activities that could much better be carried out by local people. Indeed, in applied situations like education, more awareness of non-verbal and contextual aspects of cultural processes are most important since the results of misunderstandings and poor communications have impact on many more people than is the case in ordinary anthropological research.

An increased understanding of non-verbal aspects of communication is important, then, not only for more complete understanding of the function of culture by anthropologists but also for the benefit of all people who operate in cross-cultural circumstances, for whom most anthropological concepts would be intellectual curiosities. However, anthropology has a way to go before it will have either the knowledge or the means of presenting it that would be useful to such people.



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Alaska Native Knowledge Network
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Last modified November 12, 2008