Nonverbal behaviors that are appropriate in one culture might not be appropriate in another. A whole industry has developed to teach diplomats and travelers about nonverbal rules of other cultures. For example, in Asia, it is important for people not to praise themselves and instead to appear humble (Maki & Kitano, 2002). Therefore, an American who boasts might not be well received in Asian countries.
If you are involved in interpersonal interactions in which your rules for nonverbal behaviors are not followed by the other person, you might feel intense discomfort. You might not be able to understand or articulate why you feel uncomfortable, but you probably know that something does not feel right. For example, if someone stares at you, you might feel uncomfortable because it is inappropriate in your culture to stare for a long time. If someone stands too close and grabs your arm when you are talking, you might feel an urge to move away because the person has violated your personal space.
Helpers need to adapt their style to fit clients’ nonverbal styles rather than expect clients to adapt to them. Helpers can take their cues from clients as to what makes them feel comfortable. For example, if a client acts nervous when the helper initiates eye contact, the helper might look away and observe whether the client responds differently. We cannot stereotype that clients from certain cultures will behave in specific ways; rather, we have to observe to see how each individual client responds.
Relax and Be Natural but Professional
It is important not to just appear relaxed but to actually be relaxed. Many beginning trainees try so hard to maintain an attending stance that they come across as artificial or posed. They perform all the “right” behaviors but end up being too attentive, which makes clients feel they are being examined too closely. One of the most difficult tasks facing helpers is to relax and be themselves. However, when helpers integrate attending and listening behaviors into their way of being, clients
often respond by exploring their concerns. When you are not able to relax, it can be helpful to step back and try to learn
more about what is going on inside you. For example, if you feel your muscles tensing or note you are withdrawing physically from clients, you might reflect about what is going on inside you at that moment. Awareness is the key to handling situations (refer back to Chapter 4). Once you know how you feel, you can make informed decisions about how to act rather than having the reactions “leak out.” Paying attention to bodily reactions provides an incredible amount of information about clients. If you feel bored, anxious, attracted, or repulsed by a client, chances are other people feel this way toward the client. See Chapter 14 for ideas about how to use these reactions therapeutically during the insight stage.