Body Language and Paramedics

Among the various way humans communicate — through the use of the voice, the written word, sign language (for the hearing impaired) or through body language — the one communication style that is perhaps least recognized by the layperson is body language. Body language is also likely the least understood, albeit scholars and researchers assert that it body language plays a substantial role in human communication activities. This paper will discuss how body language works, why it is vital in terms of human communication and understanding, and it will also review and critique the work of first responders (in specifics, paramedics) and why a thorough understanding of body language is important to paramedics.

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The Literature on Body Language — Theoretical Approach

“A vulgar man often scratches his head when perplexed in mind…another man rubs his eyes when perplexed, or gives a little cough when embarrassed… persons in describing a horrid sight often shut their eyes momentarily and firmly, or shake their heads, as if not to see… [and] people in Western cultures avert their gaze and turn their faces away when feeling shame, as if hiding from observation…children learning to write often twist about their tongues as their fingers move, in a ridiculous fashion….” (Darwin, et al., 2002).

A peer-reviewed article in the Annals of the University of Petrosani, Economics points out that it is important to acquire skills related to body language because “…over 70% of our communication is done nonverbally” (Dumbrava, et al., 2009, p. 249). Dumbrava explains that nonverbal communication (body language) entails: body posture, head gestures, facial expressions, handshake, eye contact, and smile. Clearly — in terms of body posture — walking and standing with “head up, shoulders back” conveys a strong message of self-confidence that engenders respect on the part of the other person in the picture (Dumbrava, 252).

Among the nonverbal messages sent, the face is vitally important. To wit, rubbing one’s eyes reflects a “deceitful attitude”; rolling the eyes is a “dismissive gesture that indicates superiority”; peering over the top of glasses suggests “scrutiny and a critical attitude”; and rubbing one’s nose suggests “a dislike of the subject” (Dumbrava, 252). As to handshakes, a lot of mistakes are made in this aspect of body language; hold the person’s hand “firmly”; shake three times “maximum”; maintain “constant eye contact”; and “radiate a positive aura” (Dumbrava, 253).

Part of the scholarly study of body language involves “territory,” and “space,” and how much space ordinary people need prior to being comfortable with another person before nonverbal communication can take place. Dumbrava mentions the space and territory study conducted by anthropologist Edward Hall, who broke the issue of space and comfort communication zones down to four with his respected theory of proxemics.

Those four are: a) between 0 and 45 centimeters (cm) is reserved for “close, deeply emotional personal relationships”; b) 45 cm to 120 cm is set aside for “personal conversations with friends, family,” or close colleagues / associates; c) 120 cm to 365 cm is a safe “social distance that generally applies to formal interactions; and d) 365 cm to line of sight is the proper public distance for communication. The bottom line vis-a-vis these measurements is that before entering another individual’s personal space, the person must “establish trust” or a defensive reaction will be triggered. How is trust established in a case like this? The answer provided by Dumbrava is through the use of good body language skills.

Dumbrava references Charles Darwin’s book the Expressions in Man and Animals, which was the first basic primer on nonverbal cues. Darwin offers three principles regarding body language: one) “The principle of serviceable associated Habits” (force of habit leads people to use the same body actions they always have, albeit they may not be good actions); two) “The principle of Antithesis” (“certain states of mind lead to certain habitual actions” and when there is a “directly opposite state of mind” — as moving from joy to anger — the “involuntary tendencies to make exactly the opposite body actions though they may be “of no use”; and three) the principle of “…actions due to the constitution of the Nervous system,” independent of the will and independent of habit (Darwin, 2008).

Of all the body parts that convey important messages, the face “draws the most attention and thus plays an integral role in expressing emotions” (Kurien, 2010, p. 31). With the expressions conveyed by “eye gestures, eyebrow movement, lip movement, cheek movement,” the individual shows moods such as happy, optimistic, not so happy, discontent, depressed, frustrated or angry (Kurien, 31). Watching a person in a business situation darting his eyes back and forth, the observer knows that individual is “frantically looking for an escape route and is uninterested in the events in the room,” Kurien continues (32).

Also, a person’s biological makeup provides eye blinking at about six to eight blinks per minute, but when that person is telling a lie, the blinking “increases” (Kurien, 32). There are gazes that reflect what the individual is up to: a) a “social gaze” focuses on the eye and the nose region of another person; b) the “power gaze” concentrates on the forehead and eye region of the other person and indicates “power and authority”; and c) the “intimate gaze” focuses on the face and “lower body” of the other person, and is considered inappropriate in workplace and business environments (Kurien, 32).

Paramedics’ Actions (and Body Language) Speak Louder than Words

“When you begin talking with the patient, your body language is as important as your words…Try to position yourself so you are at the patient’s eye level” (Schottke, 2006).

When a paramedic, who is a first responder, arrives at the scene of a traffic accident, he (“he” will be used in this paper albeit paramedics are just as apt to be females) can be compassionate and understanding without saying a word. In the book Foundations of Paramedic Care (Beebe, et al., 2009, 230), the authors point to the need for a paramedic to be as acutely aware of the body language as he is of his spoken words. He also needs to be very aware of the body language of the victim, as well; for example, Beebe explains that a Japanese man might nod his head in agreement when the paramedic treats a wound or makes a calm statement, but that nod could be out of respect for authority, rather than understanding (231).

On page 232 Beebe explains that when treating an injured person, take into account Edward Hall’s theory of proxemics, mentioned earlier in this paper (don’t get in the patient’s face; stay a comfortable distance). If the patient cannot hear what the paramedic is saying — or is in such pain he is distracted from the care that is being offered — instead of “waving hands in front of the patient’s face,” the paramedic should use “…a simple touch of the hand or forearm” of the patient. Again, body language conveys messages that are vital in touch-and-go situations.

In every case, the paramedic should look for patient understanding through “body language, facial expressions” of the patient; and moreover, the paramedic should position himself in a “non-defensive posture, keeping arms open, having a genuine look of interest…and keep an “appropriate distance” from the patient (Beebe, 238). Beebe asserts that prior to going out on any emergency call, the paramedic should “study nonverbal behavior for & #8230; improved communication skills” (238). Knowing that just holding the patient’s hand, a therapeutic, compassionate touch, is the kind of quiet body language that can help quiet and calm a patient.

Self-Reflection Component

A few years ago I encountered a traffic accident on a lonely rural road at night; the driver had crashed into a farm wagon that was parked on the road with no reflectors. Without having done the research on the power of body language, I learned by actually engaging in quiet, thoughtful acts for the injured person. Knowing what I know now, I was correct to staying a respectful distance away from the injured passenger. The driver was apparently in shock, was bleeding, and had been thrown out of the car into a ditch. After calling 911, I noted that the driver was alive but not responding to my voice. The passenger was sitting on the ground. I did not shine my flashlight in the passenger’s face, and I sat down but not too close, and smiled and held out my hand to the woman (who was terrified that her husband, the driver, was dead). She reached out and took my hand and I held her hand for a long time.

I had a blanket in my car and wrapped it gently around her. She cried, at first softly but then she began sobbing intensely. I went behind her and wrapped my arms around her. She laid her head on my shoulder. When the paramedics and fire fighters arrived I stayed with the passenger as they attended the driver in the ditch. I believe today I did everything right, because I had no gauze or bandages for the seriously injured person and had no medical training.

When I was in high school, my parents were involved in an accident, and someone tried to pull my mom out of the driver’s seat when the steering wheel was actually pressed against her chest. That was a mistake, because it caused more bleeding and deeper injuries to her ribs. It is clear that when a good Samaritan stops to help an injured person, it’s best to let the profession paramedics (which I plan on becoming) handle those delicate chores. Comforting the injured with positive, empathetic body language and directing traffic is about all a layperson should try to do.

In conclusion, a reader doesn’t realize how little he or she knows about the power of nonverbal communication until delving seriously into the literature. The fact that 70% of what humans communicate is conveyed using facial expressions and other aspects of body language comes as a shock, but maybe it is a wake-up call for alert readers in terms of the impressions made to others vis-a-vis body language. It is also pertinent and useful to know not to stand too closely to a person when speaking, and certainly it is wise to avoid: inappropriate “intimate” stares; rubbing one’s eyes in a conversation; using poor body posture when in a conversation; and making cultural or racial judgments and having those emotions shown through inappropriate body language.

Works Cited

Beebe, Richard, and Myers, Jeffrey. (2009). Foundations of Paramedic Care. Independence,

KY: Cengage Learning.

Darwin, Charles, Ekman, Paul, and Prodger, Phillip. (2002). The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. New York: Oxford University Press.

Darwin, Charles. (2008). The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals. Saint Louis

University, Saint Louis, MO: MobileReference.

Dumbrava, Gabriela, and Koronka, Adriana. (2009). “Actions Speak Louder Than Words”

Body Language in Business Communication. Annals of the University of Petrosani,

Economics, 9(3), 249-254.

Kurien, Daisy N. (2010). Body Language: Silent Communicator at the Workplace. The IUP

Journal of Soft Skills, IV (1, 2), 29-36.

Schottke, David. (2006). First Responder: Your First Response in Emergency Care. Burlington,

MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.