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Communication competence within dietetics: dietitians’ and clients’ views about the unspoken dialogue – the impact of personal presentation

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Abstract Background: 

Although client communications are affected by clients’ assumptions about professionals’ characteristics drawn from dress attire, little is known about how this dialogue operates in dietetics. The present study aimed to describe how dietitians and their clients interpret this dialogue and to explore the implications for practice. Methods: 

A purposive quota sample of dietitians (n = 46) from 21 health services in one state of Australia and a quota of their adult patients (n = 34) were interviewed about dietitians’ nutrition education roles. Semi-structured interviews were transcribed and identified themes developed into a questionnaire to survey Australian dietitians. Analysis used frequencies and nonparametric statistics (P <0.05). Triangulation of the results obtained from the studies revealed a strong agreement between data sources. Results: 

Dietitians’ dress attire was perceived as a key source of nonverbal communications by dietetics clients. This was recognised by 75% of the 256 dietitians who were surveyed nationally. Dietitians favoured a professional style (i.e. skirt or slacks, with top). Many clients rejected formal dress (i.e. suit, high heels) as being a potential communication barrier. Some clients viewed dietitians’ bodily size/shape as a role model. Implications of dietitians’ presentation (i.e. how you look) were important to both clients and dietitians. Conclusion: 

Dress style is implicated in nonverbal communication dialogues between the dietitian and client. As a matter of competence and to maintain congruency in communication, dietitians should be aware of their clients’ preferences for formality of dress, and conduct their attire accordingly.
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Keywords: dietetics; dress style; nonverbal communication; professional communication; qualitative and quantitative methods

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: 2009-12-01

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