Non-verbal communication is a subtle form of communication that takes place in the initial three seconds after meeting someone for the first time and can continue through the entire interaction. Research indicates that non-verbal communication accounts for approximately 70% of a communication episode.
Non-verbal communication can impact the success of communication more acutely than the spoken word.
Our culturally informed unconscious framework evaluates gestures, appearance, body language, the face, and how space is used. Yet, we are rarely aware of how persons from other cultures perceive our nonverbal communication or the subtle cues we have used to assess the person.
The following are case studies that provide examples of non-verbal miscommunication that can sabotage a patient-provider encounter. Broad cultural generalizations are used for illustrative purposes. They should not be mistaken for stereotypes. A stereotype and a generalization may appear similar, but they function very differently. A stereotype is an ending point; no attempt is made to learn whether the individual in question fits the statement. A generalization is a beginning point; it indicates common trends, but further information is needed to ascertain whether the statement is appropriate to a particular individual.
Generalizations can serve as a guide to be accompanied by individualized in-person assessment. As a rule, ask the patient, rather than assume you know the patient’s needs and wants. If asked, patients will usually share their personal beliefs, practices and preferences related to prevention, diagnosis and treatment. Eye Contact
Ellen was trying to teach her Navaho patient, Jim Nez, how to live with his newly diagnosed diabetes. She soon became extremely frustrated because she felt she was not getting through to him. He asked very few questions and never met her eyes. She reasoned from this that he was uninterested and therefore not listening to her.1
It is rude to meet and hold eye contact with an elder or someone in a position of authority such as health professionals in most Latino, Asian, American Indian and many Arab countries. It may be also considered a form of social aggression if a male insists on meeting and holding eye contact with a female.
Touch and Use of Space
A physician with a large medical group requested assistance encouraging young female patients to make and keep their first well woman appointment. The physician stated that this group had a high no-show rate and appointments did not go as smoothly as the physician would like.
Talk the patient through each exam so that the need for the physical contact is understood, prior to the initiation of the examination. Ease into the patients’ personal space. If there are any concerns, ask before entering the three-foot zone. This will help ease the patient’s level of discomfort and avoid any misinterpretation of physical contact. Additionally, physical contact between a male and female is strictly regulated in many cultures. An older female companion may be necessary during the visit.
A-04-04 (pg 1 of 2)
NON-VERBAL COMMUNICATION AND PATIENT CARE (Continued)
An Anglo patient named James Todd called out to Elena, a Filipino nurse: “Nurse, nurse.” Elena came to
Mr. Todd’s door and politely asked, “May I help you?” Mr. Todd beckoned her to come closer by motioning with his right index finger. Elena remained where she was and responded in an angry voice,
“What do you want?” Mr. Todd was confused. Why had Elena’s manner suddenly changed? 2
Gestures may have dramatically different meanings across cultures. It is best to think of gestures as a local dialect that is familiar only to insiders of the culture. Conservative use of hand or body gestures is recommended to avoid misunderstanding. In the case above, Elena took offense to Mr. Todd’s innocent hand gesture. In the Philippines