June 2, 2014

Body Language

Maybe it’s because we’re in a new place, in some ways like Blanche Dubois and xxx the kindness of strangers, but I keep experiencing how body language and hospitality are linked.

Our vacation began with a put-upon clerk at the airline counter. She didn’t quite eye roll, but close; her voice was curt and clipped, with a tight smile. Even her posture spoke clearly: I don’t want to be here. And I wish you weren’t either.   

My mom needs a wheelchair for the long walks in the airport. The first attendant was convivial, chatting about the trip, offering helpful tips, and a friendly shoulder pat. The second huffed and grunted, clearly annoyed with the work..

Body language matters. It matters when we greet people at the open red doors. It matters when we pass the peace. It makes a difference during coffee hour and the potluck. How we engage with people with our eyes, our faces, our hands, even our posture is part of hospitality.   

In some ways, this is a hard lesson to put into practice. Some of our gestures and actions are almost instinctive, and we act without being consciously aware of what we’re doing. But I believe that we can also train ourselves to behave differently.

Our children have been ordering their own meals at restaurants since they were toddlers. We wanted them to be able to interact with others, to clearly articulate their needs. The speaking component was only part of the lesson. Look at the waitress or waiter when you’re speaking, we tell them. Engage in the conversation not just by words but by sitting up straight, looking him or her in the eye, nodding in response. This doesn’t come easily to them, but they practice every time we eat out.   

If you’re serious about hospitality, about extending a radical welcome, then you might need to practice too. And not just the words (though that will help) but also your body language. One way to practice is by looking into a mirror and acting as if you’re welcoming a newcomer to church. Sure, this seems a little hooky but give it a shot. Look at your body language: Is your smile friendly and disarming? Does your posture indicate an open welcome or does it seem closed and uninterested? Are you keeping eye contact or flitting around, distracted by any noise or movement?   

Another way to practice is to role play with others in the church. Again this will feel awkward at first. But what you’re trying to do is train your body language so that the motions of a warm welcome don’t feel forced but natural and authentic.

Our body language translates as clearly as the spoken word. When we say, “Welcome to the Episcopal Church,” does our body indicate that we really mean it?