"Enough to Make Your Head Spin" Lesson

Students will learn to appreciate the value of nonverbal communication, focusing on the shaking or nodding of one's head, and the meanings attached to each activity in Bulgaria and in the United States.


After studying the letter and engaging in activities, students should be able to:

  • Explain how body language aids communication in the English language.
  • Explain how body language aids communication in Bulgaria.
  • Explain the body language conflict that would occur for English speakers speaking Bulgarian, and vice-versa. 


  1. Discuss qualities of good communication for speakers and listeners (in America, for English speakers). Have the students brainstorm a list for speakers and a list for listeners, which you write on the board or on the overhead. (Speaking qualities would include clarity, proper volume, use of inflection, interesting topic, appropriate vocabulary. Listening qualities would include good eye contact, thinking about the content of the information conveyed, letting the speaker talk without interrupting, asking relevant questions at the appropriate time, paraphrasing or summarizing important data, not interjecting personal anecdotes unrelated to the subject, and affirming the speaker through nonverbal communication or body language such as smiling and nodding your head.) Introduce the idea of a continuum of good listening using a scale from 1 to 10.
  2. (Optional) Have the students evaluate the importance of nonverbal affirmations for the speaker and listener by doing an experiment. Divide the class into two groups—speakers and listeners. Pair up the speakers and listeners. Then divide the listeners into four subgroups. Give each a different set of written directions. One group of listeners will use no nonverbal affirmations while listening to their partners. A second group of listeners will use a positive nonverbal affirmation—smiling at appropriate times. A third group will use a positive nonverbal affirmation—nodding their heads at appropriate times. A fourth group will use negative nonverbal confirmations—shaking their heads no instead of nodding at the appropriate time. Give the speakers a prompt, such as their favorite vacation or the funniest thing that ever happened to them. Allow the speakers one minute to speak to the listeners, who follow the directions for their subgroup. Have each speaker record the quality of the listening on a scale of 1 to 10. Students should then report to the large group, and tally the results. Discuss the mixed message speakers received from the head-shaking listeners. Tell the students they are going to read a story about an American Peace Corps Volunteer in Bulgaria who faced a similar problem.
  3. Locate Bulgaria on the globe and on the map [link]. Point out its location and ask the students to predict the climate from the latitude. Read them Elizabeth's description of the climate from her biography (link).
  4. Read the story with the class. Help the students identify Elizabeth's major nonverbal communication difficulty, and the problems that ensue as a result of this difficulty (head nod vs. head shake). Have the students identify the adaptations Elizabeth made to deal with this difficulty: 1) Asking her students to use Da (yes) or Ne (no); 2) listening for the tongue cluck that often accompanies no; 3) laughing at her mistakes; 4) practicing correct head movements when speaking Bulgarian to Bulgarians). Ask the students to identify some traits Elizabeth must possess to succeed in her work (good learner, good sense of humor, hard worker, determined, sensitive, good listener). Ask them what the rewards are for Elizabeth's efforts (brings her closer to the people and the culture, laughter, smiles). Ask the students to identify the cultural universals in communication Elizabeth mentions (laughter, smiles). Ask them if they agree with the statement "A smile is a smile the world over," and if so, why they think it is true.
  5. With a volunteer, demonstrate good listening practices in the Bulgarian language (head shake—yes, head nod and tongue cluck—no). Have all the students pair up and use Bulgarian body language while speaking English. Ask them for their reactions to the activity, and point out how this could be like Americans speaking English in Bulgaria (who are unaware of the body language differences).
  6. To reinforce the body language communication issue, have the students do a tally at home on listening practices of their friends and family. Tell the students to talk to a friend or family member and tally how many times their listener(s) smiled or nodded their heads over a three-minute time frame. Have the students share Elizabeth's story with the volunteer at home. Bring the tally results in, and create a class graph on nonverbal listening. See if there are any additional gestures that should be added from the student research, and have the class share their volunteers' reactions with their classmates.

Frameworks & Standards

Enduring Understandings

  • Learning effective cross-cultural communication with others can be a rewarding undertaking.
  • Cross-cultural communication is a complex task, partly because of cultural differences in body language, alphabet, speech patterns, and voice intonations.

Essential Questions

  • How are body language and spoken language both elements of effective communication?
  • What makes cross-cultural communication challenging?
  • Do cultural universals exist in nonverbal communication?
  • What are some of the benefits of effective cross-cultural communication?  


  1. Have the students take positions on the three questions Elizabeth poses in paragraph four of the letter concerning head movements when speaking English with English-speaking Bulgarians, speaking Bulgarian with English-speaking Bulgarians, and speaking English but listening to Bulgarian with English-speaking Bulgarians. Have a class discussion to point out the benefits of each answer, and try to predict what Elizabeth did in each circumstance.
  2. Research the Bulgarian alphabet and share the results with others. Highlight differences from English in letters and sounds.
  3. Research the benefits of smiling for your mental, physical, and emotional health. Share the results with others.
  4. Peter Spier's book People covers a wide variety of cultural differences. After reading it, make a list of all the differences he mentions that you think are individual or physical (such as noses). Then make a list of all the differences you think are mostly cultural (such as clothing). Have a friend make such lists, too, and compare them with yours. This is one way to learn about culture. The study of culture is called anthropology.
  5. Have a Mix-Up Day, where students shake their heads when they mean "yes," and nod their heads when they mean "no." Many children have experienced a "backwards day" where children say "no" when they agree, and "yes" when they don't. Ask them to compare and contrast the two experiences.

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