Wednesday, 6 March 2019


About a year before Mom died, I wrote this from her hospital room:

Mom was hospitalised just prior to Christmas for respiratory distress. A young, bespectacled respirologist strode into the room. He smiled at Mom and began to make notes on his clipboard.  "Have you ever had trouble breathing before?" he asked.  "Once when I was about twelve, I was at camp..." Mom began.  My eye was drawn to the doctor's foot. His polished loafer began to tap rapidly, but his smile remained fixed.

I thought, "he is trying to have a business conversation here. But Mom thinks this is PERSONAL!"  I jumped in and re-directed Mom to her more recent health history.

Very recently, I observed similar behaviour from a physician who was treating our son in hospital. The doctor was professional, knowledgeable and pleasant. But his foot tapped excessively during our conversation, to the point that his knee was shaking.  This doctor appeared to be listening and he answered all our (very good) questions. But it was hard for me to focus on his words because I was so distracted by his foot and leg.

Here’s what that tapping foot meant to me: “This doctor is worried about his next patient or maybe he’s late for a meeting.” “I need to hurry up and ask my questions. What were my questions again?” “I’m sorry I’m taking up so much time.”

I kept thinking about that tapping foot and so I googled the body language of feet. This is what I found:

"The secret language of feet can reveal a great deal about our personality, what we think of the person we're talking to and even our emotional and psychological state, they are a fascinating channel of nonverbal communication."
"Compiling this research has been a revelation. The reason our feet may be giving us away is that they are part of the body from which we have the least internal feedback."
"The weird thing about feet is that most people know what they are doing with their facial expression, they may or may not know what they are doing with their hands but unless we specifically think about it, we know nothing about what we are doing with our feet."

And from the pen of Dr. Susan KraussWhitbourne, Professor Emerita of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, writing for Psychology Today:

"Shaking your legs communicates anxiety, and when you shake those legs you inevitably shake those feet.  However, your feet can get you into trouble with your body language all on their own. Tapping your toes is one way to show that you’re in a hurry and anxious to get moving.  You may want to tap your toes if you’re trying to get someone’s attention and don’t want to say something rude. It’s a little way of signaling that you’re feeling time pressured without yelling or engaging in sarcastic eye-rolling. However, you do so at a risk. Either you’ll be ignored or still perceived as rude. Better to handle your feelings of annoyance over being made to wait by politely voicing your concerns."

So here’s my prescription for doctors: For better outcomes, stop tapping your feet when in conversation with your patient and his or her family.


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