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Non-Verbal Communication

One set of communication repertoire which these patients appeared to use widely and richly was that of the non-verbal variety. They seemed to be so skillful at this that the very essence of the psychotherapeutic methods, i.e., “to put into words,” was often in dang of being thwarted. Many times, words were at once magical and meaningless; non-verbal communication then became more meaningful and reliable.

Some non-verbal messages came through loud and clear. One sharp look of scorn, one cold glance of congealed anger were enough to turn my blood cold. The woman in tears, her hair dishevelled, slumped in the chair, heels of her unshod feet scraping the top the foot rest, needed no words to announce her state of frustration. The male patient who unabashedly undressed the therapist just by looking at her did not know what being subtle or surreptitious means. The male adolescent with his movements in painful slow motion, repetitively pulling up his socks, straightening his collar while his shoulders stiffen; or the female adolescent, one hand held near the mouth, head held down slightly, the eyes with the look of a cornered fawn, and shoulders softly and alternately swaying—both eloquently conveyed the inner state of tension caused by heightened self-consciousness.

Behavior, more than looks or posture, may have an even clearer and final message. One patient, at her last session prior to returning to the province, took out a camera and without any ado, shot a picture of me. Patients, who never showed up for the next appointment after a trying or painful one, did not feel the need to call or explain. One woman copied a dress of mine down to the last derail. A bayong of fruits or a basket of crabs did not need the assistance of words to convey the giver’s sense of gratitude.

Unfortunately, just as often, the non-verbal message was garbled, perhaps because the therapist was not sensitive enough to catch all the clues and cues which collectively formed the message; or perhaps because the nature of the message itself was not clear to the sender. One of the most enigmatic and hence frustrating (to the therapist) facial expressions in Filipino patients is the impassive look, non-committal, almost vacant, bordering on apathy. The gaze is often averted from the therapist, occasionally drifting back to meet that of the therapist while one wordless minute follows another. No, he says, there is nothing on his mind and he scratches his head to prove it. No, he has no particular feelings and he gives a small, pleasant smile to prove it. With every bit of pressure, no matter how gentle, he moves farther away. The only message one gets finally is that he is not ready to communicate at this time and neither does he give any indication of being ever ready at all. On the other hand, an actively smiling and pleasant patient can also communicate very little meaningful material. Women, especially, gesture a lot and move around more than do men during the hour.

 

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