Nonverbal Cues in Psychotherapy Related to Culture
by Diane A. Suffridge, Ph.D.
“I recently had a first session with a client who immigrated from India last year. I’m Caucasian and haven’t lived outside the United States. My client didn’t seem as receptive to therapy as most of my other clients, and I assume this has to do with our cultural differences. What can I do to make it easier for her to benefit from therapy? “
It is good for you to begin this therapeutic relationship with an awareness that you will need to make some adjustments in your usual therapeutic practices in order for this client to benefit from therapy. When we have significant cultural differences from our clients, it is our clinical responsibility to learn about the implications of these differences for establishing a therapeutic relationship.
The first step I would suggest is to get some education and consultation on your own, with supervisors, professors, and colleagues and by accessing professional publications in print or online. Since there are many cultural groups within India, it will be important to know your client’s geographic, religious, and class identifications. The easiest aspects of this education will be general information about views of health and mental health, symptoms, and treatment. Your client will also be able to tell you about her understanding of these aspects of her culture. Issues and struggles for first generation Indian clients are reflected in movies and books. The movie “Bend It Like Beckham” and the book “Life’s Not All Ha Ha Hee Hee” by Meera Syal are examples.
In general, boundaries within the Indian culture are very different from those in the West. Many generations live together, elders are expected to be cared for, and daughters in law are expected to bear the brunt of the work in traditional homes. Explore your client’s family structure and expectations, including the family members and living arrangement she left in India and whether she lives with family members or has acquaintances in the U.S. Approach these discussions with openness and keep in mind that individuation may not be the goal of therapy for your client. The structure of a family system that fosters both a sense of connection and a sense of individual wellbeing for this client may look different than for your clients who come from traditional Western culture.
The more difficult aspects of your need for education will be learning about the relational expectations of your client’s culture including nonverbal cues (i.e., eye contact and other gestures) and boundaries. It may be helpful to supplement your education about your client’s specific culture by consulting with colleagues and acquaintances who have immigrated from other cultures. They may be able to share their observations about the unspoken practices and expectations of U.S. culture which are outside of your awareness.
Regarding Indian culture specifically, clients are likely to present as cautious, anxious, or even timid with limited eye contact. These nonverbal cues are not a reflection of avoidance or resistance to therapy, but are signs of deference. The client will expect guidance and direct instruction and will feel comfortable knowing that the clinician is the expert. Therapy initially should be somewhat structured and have clear goals.
If your client immigrated in midlife or later, be aware that many older generation Indians are not psychologically educated and as a result present with somatic problems. They may be referred by a physician rather than self-referred. Consider spending time understanding how the somatic issue affects to the client’s life and overall sense of wellbeing including how it affects their spiritual practice, diet, and family life.
In addition to education and consultation, your attentiveness to your client in session will give you valuable information. You mention that she didn’t seem as receptive to therapy as other clients, so I recommend giving some thought to what you observed or inferred in her behavior. Notice the nonverbal aspects of her interactions with you, and see if you can match her level of engagement in terms of expressiveness and eye contact. This may increase her comfort by reducing the interactional discrepancies between you. Be attentive to times in the session when she seems more or less comfortable and think about what may have been different in your relational style at those times. Emotions are often communicated through nonverbal gestures as much as or more than our words, so be careful about making interpretations about her emotional state based on your cultural assumptions. Note that the meaning of nonverbal cues is different across cultures; for example, a nod of the head that indicates saying “no” in western culture means “yes” for Indians.
It may also be useful to have some direct discussion with your client about some of the structural aspects of therapy that are unfamiliar to her. Interpersonal boundaries are experienced very differently in different cultures, so the meaning of professional behavior may be different for your client than you intend. Consider telling your client about the meaning of your professional boundaries and the therapeutic frame, acknowledging that these practices may be unfamiliar to her and may even seem odd. Invite your client’s comments and be open to shifting some aspects of your boundaries in minor ways if that will facilitate the development of the therapeutic relationship. For Indian clients, examples of appropriate differences in boundaries are accepting a small gift or a hug offered out of gratitude from the client, joining in the use of humor to bring warmth to the session, and using a double-handed hand shake.
My colleague, Fenella das Gupta, LMFT, Ph.D. Neuroscience, provided consultation in developing the content of this blog post. See Fenella’s website at http://www.innermirror.com/ for more information about her practice.
For more about Diane Suffridge, visit: www.dianesuffridgephd.com
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The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not reflect the opinions of the Marin County Psychological Association. The information posted on this blog is not intended as, and is not, a substitute for professional mental health services.