By Marge Knoth, Author, Activity Professional
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Author, Activity Professional
Valley Press Books

Marge Knoth attended Purdue
University and took her activity
director training at Indiana
University and her social
service at Ball State.  She is
the author of ten books for
activity professionals. Her
books have been used as
teaching guides in colleges,
trade schools, and in activity
director courses throughout the
U.S. and Canada. They have
won both national and state
awards from the National
Federation of Press Women
and Women’s Press Club of

Marge has written a monthly
column, "A Letter from Marge"
for Current Activities in Long
Term Care.  She has been
published in Family Circle,
Lady’s Circle, Women’s Circle,
Indianapolis Woman, Christian
Science Monitor, Event,
various Christian and craft
publications, and other
magazines and newspapers.
She wrote a weekly newspaper
column called “Do You
Remember?”, and wrote and
recorded a long-running series
of nostalgic radio
commercials.  Also, she is a
motivational speaker having
traveled the United States and
Canada speaking at many state
and province activity
To Order Books by Marge Knoth
Don’t Look At Me
In That Tone of Voice!

By Marge Knoth

If you were to go in to work one day and at midmorning, for some reason, you could no
longer hear, what would you do? Would you panic that you could no longer
communicate with coworkers?  Tragic as that would be, you may soon find that
wordless communication is not all that difficult.  

We all speak two languages, whether we are aware of it or not.  There is our native
language and a non-verbal language.  We communicate with our words, sure, but even
more with our voice tone, voice inflections, eyes, face, smile, and body movements.  As
a young married couple when Rick was trying to read my thoughts, he would jokingly
say, “Don’t look at me in that tone of voice!”

Without their uttering a word, we can determine whether a person is weak or
authoritative, dependable or unreliable, trustworthy or suspicious, aggressive or
passive, agreeable or unpleasant.  Experts say that body language is more honest and
more accurate than words.  Psychologist Albert Mehrabian, in his book Silent
Messages, says our actions override our words.  He continues, “They are more potent
than the words we speak.  When our verbal messages are inconsistent with body
language, our credibility crumbles because most people will believe the nonverbal.”

Even Shakespeare knew about body language.  He wrote: “There is language in her
eye, her cheek, her lip.  Nay her foot speaks, her wanton spirits leak out at every joint
and motive of her body.”  The old colloquialism is indeed true:  Actions speak louder
than words.

Surprisingly, according to one study*, only 7% of the message we send is transmitted
with words.*  Fifty-five percent is sent visually (our gestures and our body language) and
38% is vocal (the way we say it).  This involves the tone of our voice, the speed with
which we speak, the inflections, the pauses, and the sighs.

To an activity professional, understanding body language is vital.  It can enhance our
professionalism, improve our relationships with co-workers, and help us better
understand our residents. Just last week my husband and I went to a nursing home to
help with a weekly service our church holds there.  One delightful and alert lady, Bertha,
can say only one word– never.  She responds to any question or comment with “never,
never, never, never, never.”    Bertha loves the church service, but this time, when I went
looking for her, she had just been tucked in for the
night.  When I inquired about her attending, her reply was the same, “never, never,
never, never.”  But her body language  screamed something else.  Her eyes pleaded,
“Get me up!  Get me up!” Much to her delight, the kind nurses did just that.  Like Bertha,
many of our residents may be unable to communicate with words, so it is critical that
we understand their non-verbal language.

Think of some of the common body language we use every day.  There’s the
handshake, the nod, the pat, waving, shaking the head, smiling, crossing the legs,
blowing a kiss, sighing, raising our eyebrows, smiling, dangling a loose shoe from our
toes, folding our arms across our chest.  How about scratching the head, rubbing the
neck, shrugging the shoulders, and making a fist?  Then there is tapping the fingers on
a table, twiddling the thumbs, steepling the fingers, and wrinkling the nose.  There is
sticking the chin out, or the tongue, cocking the head, pursing the lips, licking the lips,
and biting the lips.  And how about covering the mouth, crossing the fingers, and
looking at someone sideways?  But what does it all mean?

Much body language is self-explanatory, but some is a little more obscure.  We all know
fingers are crossed for luck and that we wave for a greeting and separations.  We
shake our head up and down for yes, and side to side for no.  We recognize an
outstretched chin as a sign of belligerence, pursed lips as disapproval, and a
policeman’s raised arm and open palm to mean “halt!”  Licking the lips indicates
nervousness, and biting the lip self-reproach.  Finger-tapping, thumb twiddling, and a
tapping the foot indicates a lack of attention, impatience, or annoyance.  Clenched fists
communicate “I’m afraid.”  Fidgeting, and/or sighing can mean “I’m bored.”

Crossing the legs and folding the arms across the chest may mean several things:
defensiveness, I disagreement, caution, or “Let’s put some distance between you and
me.” or “Convince me”.   Allowing one’s eye glasses to slip down on the nose and
peering over them causes negative reactions in others.  Pinching the bridge of the nose
shows great thought and concern.  Resting one’s feet on a desk seems to claim
territorial rights.  Nervousness is shown when one clears the throat, wrings the hands,
bites the fingernails, or paces the floor.

We often scratch our head when we are trying to make a decision.  We rub our neck or
eyes and pull at our chin when we are undecided, indifferent, suspicious, or feel we’ve
lost control. Rubbing or touching the nose is a sign of doubt and can reveal a negative
reaction. We squint when we see something revolting.  We shrug our shoulders to say,
“I don’t know” or “Who cares?”  When we look at someone sideways we are saying we
don’t trust that person.  When we tilt our head sideways, we may be showing sympathy
or compassion, or that we are listening.  High-class people tilt their heads back more
than low-class people.  It can appear insulting.  Ever heard “to look down one’s nose at
someone”?  Drab colors, tinted glasses, hair covering the face, obesity, beards,
mustaches, oversized clothing, body odor, even a wedding ring may suggest a person
wants to be left alone.

Steepling is a gesture of holding the hands together with the index fingers extended
and touching like a steeple while the other fingers are entwined.  This has different
meanings. It could mean spirituality, or it could mean arrogance or superiority.  In a
meeting, steepling might express confidence and that you know what you are talking
about.  Or it can mean the person is evaluating an issue, action, decision, or purchase.  
Stroking the face or the chin also shows thoughtfulness and evaluation.  

Open arms indicate warmth, openness, acceptance, and love.  I’ll never forget one time
many years ago when I went to the airport to meet my four-year-old granddaughter who
was just arriving.  She caught sight of me and began to run as fast as her little legs
would carry her.  I stooped down to meet her at eye level.  In an instant, she tackled me
so hard we were both on the floor laughing.  Not a word was necessary.  It was pure,
unabashed love and genuine acceptance.  Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone were as free
as a little child to show love?

As activity professionals, attentive body language and a listening ear can benefit us
much. If we are meeting with our boss, interviewing an activity assistant, or checking out
a potential volunteer, really listening to them sends a strong signal that they are
important to us and that we are interested in what they have to say. Listening involves
avoiding distractions such as the phone or people interrupting.  Moving slightly toward
them and nodding slowly as they speak, further shows our interest.

Handshakes communicate much. The handshake, formerly the arm clasp, was
originally used by the Romans to determine if the other person was carrying a weapon.
Knights of medieval times invented the shaking part in order to loosen any hidden
daggers or other weapons stored in the bulky sleeves.  An extended hand and a strong
handshake, while looking the person in the eye and smiling, shows confidence.  
Making palm to palm contact depicts openness and honesty where avoiding palm
contact shows the opposite. A wimpy handshake leads one to question the person‘s
trustworthiness, or causes one to wonder what the person is hiding.  

We all recognize the thumb under the chin with fingers resting on the cheek.  This is the
traditional thinker’s position. It can also mean critical, cynical and being negative toward
the other person.  There is the “okay” sign with thumb and forefinger making a circle.  
When someone occupies himself with an object such as a pen, paperweight, or his
glasses, we recognize a delaying tactic.  They may be thinking out an issue and need
more time.  Hunching the shoulders indicates a heavy burden.  A bowed head could
mean humility, reverence, or guilt.  A hand to the heart conveys honesty, sincerity, or

Erect posture speaks confidence and high self-esteem while slumped posture
communicates low self-esteem, fatigue, or inferior feelings.  Depressed people walk
around with their head down, sometimes with hands in their pockets.  Muggers, when
stalking victims, are aware of this head-down position, assuming that person is a
vulnerable target.   

Submissive body language indicates fear and readiness to submit. Watch two animals
play and by their body language, you will quickly see who is dominant and who is
submissive.  Submissive people tend to smile more at dominant people, but with their
mouths only, not their eyes.  Submissive gestures are hands in the air as in surrender,
hands out and palms up displaying no weapons.  Other signs are sweating, pulling on
one’s hair, jerky movements, and touching the face.  Aggressive body language can
been seen in facial frowns, pursed lips, and sneers.  The aggressor may stare, clench
his fists, invade the other person’s personal space, or even venture to touch his victim
to see how he or she will respond.

How we sit in a chair sends a message too.  Perching on the edge of a chair or playing
with one’s ring indicates nervousness or stress.  Leaning back with both hands placed
behind the neck suggests the person is feeling confident, dominant, even superior.  It
can also mean the person is comfortable and relaxed and very open to ideas.  Leaning
forward indicates interest.  

A long time ago, I  happened to tune in to the Regis and Kathy Lee show.  Several
journalists, that day, were being interviewed.  I couldn’t help noticing how, with one
guest, Kathy Lee just set back in her chair and talked with her showing no real
indication of interest.  But when the next journalist came out, Kathy Lee  leaned forward
in her chair and smiled freely, showing genuine warmth and interest.  Another time I
saw a president giving a “State of the Union” speech and a lady who sat on the platform
directly behind him was reading a book.  We have to consciously be aware because our
body language speaks volumes.

How often do we see someone shielding his mouth while talking to another?  This may
suggest untruthfulness.  It is a subconscious barricade for his words.  When entering a
room, we should avoid  barricading ourselves by placing a big purse or brief case in
front of us, but rather carry it at our side to project openness and warmth. Scratching or
pulling at the ear could mean the person is puzzled or needs to know more about the
issue. When hesitating, one might scoot their chair, cross their ankles, chew on their
pen, scratch their head, or narrow their eyes. Stress may be showing when we rub our
eyes or cheek, constantly reposition ourselves in our chairs, or blink frequently  

Smiling is such a simple gesture, but it says so much.  A genuine smile can lift the
spirits both of the sender and the receiver.  But some smiles are not genuine.  You can
recognize an insincere smile because it never reaches the eyes.  Smiles can send
many messages:  friendliness, happiness, politeness, or appeasement.  Women
smile more often than men and appease more with smiles.  Smiles are good, but they
can work to our disadvantage if used too frequently and for the wrong reasons.  By
watching someone’s face, we can tell which emotion is being felt, and by watching the
rest of their body, we can tell the intensity of that emotion.  

In conversations we tend to turn our bodies toward the person we are interested in and
away from those we are not. Signs that a person wants to leave, are uncrossing the
legs, looking at their watch, picking up their purse, or straightening their clothing.  

Men and women differ some in body language.  Women generally look at a person
when they are speaking to him or her (seeking a reaction?) while men look at a person
when they are listening to him or her.  The more space a person takes, the more
dominant he appears.  Not only are men generally larger than women, they spread out
their bodies more when they sit down.  Sitting back in their chairs, legs are spread apart
or one leg is drawn up with the foot resting on the other knee.  Arms are sometimes
spread across the backs of chairs.  On the other hand, women commonly sit with legs
together and arms closer to the body.  Should women try that masculine pose, no
doubt, they would appear threatening to the men in the room because it is not typical
female behavior.  A woman often nods her head in conversation meaning “I hear what
you are saying.”  When a man nods his head, it probably means, “I agree.”  
Consequently, there can be some confusion when the two sexes communicate.

Women are more free with gestures than men.  Gestures are okay if necessary to get a
point across, but too many hand gestures discredit us.  Those perceived as
authoritative use fewer, more relaxed gestures, so their thoughts and words appear

The eyes tell the most secrets.  Eye contact gains us respect and approval.  In normal
conversations we look at each other 30-60% of the time, more for those romantically
involved.  Direct eye contact should  last seven to 10 seconds.  Any longer could send
and intimidating message and make the other person feel uncomfortable.  Or it could
show sexual interest.  Our pupils automatically increase in size when we are attracted
to someone, or they to us (other things can cause this reaction, too.)  Direct eye contact
can depict warmth, trust, interest, and that  you are liked. On the other hand, averted
eyes suggest deceitfulness.  Our eyes portray a range of emotions: love, hate,
frustration, disgust, anger, compassion, surprise.  If direct eye contact is difficult,
experts tell us to focus on the nose or somewhere else on the face.  They won’t know
the difference.

The eye-level, too, is important.  Kare Anderson in Gettintg What You Want says, “In a
group the person with the highest eye-level is perceived as the leader.  People tend to
address that person first.”  Kare tells of a little five-foot-two-inch lawyer named Sarah
who kept getting interrupted in meetings.  At one particular meeting, though, just before
she wanted to make an important point, she got up to get herself a cup of coffee.  While
still standing, thus having the highest eye level, she raised her point.  With everyone
was looking up at her, it was well received.

Our clothes and our manner of speaking say something about us.  Wearing colorful
clothing indicates we are people-oriented while conservative clothing says we are task-
oriented.  Speaking slowly and in lower tones makes us appear more believable.  
Slower speech denotes friendliness and contemplation, but sometimes boredom.

Another well-known and extremely effective tactic to is to mirror another’s body
language.  Successful people use it all the time.  It sends the message “we have
something in common” and makes the other person feel comfortable with us.  If they
stand, we stand.  If they sit, we sit.  If they cross their legs, so do we.  If they finger their
tie, we brush some lint off our blouse or shirt.  We should not be obvious, just allow a
few seconds delay, then do something similar to what they have just done.  Some
experts suggest the opposite side.  If he scratches his left shoulder, we rub our right
shoulder.  After a while we can try leading, uncross our arms and see if the person
follows our body language.  If so, they have warmed up to us.  Mirroring happens
naturally with people who are attracted to each other.

So how else can we as activity professionals use this knowledge of body language?
We can use it to project a more professional image.  We can stand tall and sit tall, and
let our posture speak volumes.  We can consciously control our body movements to
enhance our effectiveness and credibility.  We can monitor our speech patterns.  We
can use direct eye contact when talking or listening.  We can offer a firm handshake.  
We can dress the way we want to be perceived.  When we enter a room, we can make a
good first impression.  We can learn more about body language by turning down the
volume on the TV and studying the characters’ movements.

Being more proficient in our “second” language will enhance all our relationships.  It
will help us better understand our coworkers’ sometimes indirect communication.  
When our nonverbal language is consistent with our words, we will be sending out the
message we intend.  And we will then be perceived as the professionals we really want
to be, believable and credible. God bless you all.  Marge.

* Louder than Words: Nonverbal Commiunications by A. Barbour
* Other experts say study says 8-20%