Monday, January 22, 2007

You're a Nurse, Right?

Yesterday morning, Mary and I drove to our favorite cafe and used bookstore in the middle of nowhere where we like to spend Sundays eating warm brown rice salad, drinking decaf, and pretending to read. The view of the icy river was lovely, and we eventually repaired to an old moldy couch in the bookstore, Tina snuggled between us (she was kicked out of the previously dog-friendly cafe).

We ran into an acquaintance who we had not seen for some time, and he regaled us with stories of his international community development work and other adventures. His stories were intriguing, plus Tina got to eat the leftover butter from his bagel. What could be better than that?

After a while, he looked at me and said, "You're a nurse, right?" I responded affirmatively, and he immediately shifted his gaze to Mary and said, "So what are you doing now?" The conversation continued vis-a-vis Mary's work for a while and then circled back to him.

Now, I'm more than happy to talk about my work, and I'm also happy to not do so, as well. It is such a big part of my life (and identity) that it's fine to leave it behind once in a while. However, after he asked me that question and did not pursue it further, I drifted off into a reverie thinking about what that lack of follow-up signified. Of course, we are all sometimes guilty of asking a question in a social situation and then failing to follow up, allowing the conversation to drift on its course, some tangents left to dangle like so many orphaned participles.

Another very possible reason for this gentleman not following up his question is that after confirming my continued nurseness, he immediately assumed that I work in a hospital. With that assumption, his mental images of "nurse"---hanging IVs, making beds, comforting the ill and dying, assisting a doctor---allowed him to have a vision of what I do every day without needing to ask further questions. The authors of From Silence to Voice would probably add that, while many nurses erroneously think that the public knows what they do without being told, many members of the public also think they know what nurses do based on media stereotypes.

Contrary to that experience, Mary and I were at our favorite tapas bar tonight for beer and snacks (and no, we don't go out to eat every day!). The bartender (who we know from her previous place of employment) said, "So, what kind of a nurse are you?" having been told by Mary that I was a nurse prior to my arrival. Question thus asked, she planted her elbows on the bar, hands under chin, and listened closely to my response, her face lighting up as she responded with her own dream of helping others by volunteering to create delicious, healthful meals for the ill or infirm.

There are several interesting points here. First, one might say that this could be an illustration of classic male and female conversational style. The man (our acquaintance) asked a question to which he received an expected answer, made some assumptions based upon his own experience, and then proceeded to the next question, ne'er looking back. The woman bartender, on the other hand, asked a question, used her body language and eye contact to express her sincere interest, and then added to my response by building upon it in relation to herself. Classic differences in communication style with which Deborah Tannen would have a field day.

Needless to say, I can imagine you need no help figuring out in which scenario I felt more "seen". While the bartender will not necessarily remember exactly what I do, she will most likely carry around a mental image of "latinos, vulnerable populations, HIV, substance abuse" as it relates to her memory of me. Whereas, aforementioned acquaintance will remember only "nurse" with either a caricature of Nurse Ratched, or perhaps a Hallmark card image of me in a white uniform and funny hat, compartmentalized in his mind. (As for the hat, I flatly eschew them, along with the white stockings and orthopedic pumps, mind you.)

But I digress. Does the public know what nurses do? Maybe they think they do. Do nurses think the public knows what they do? Perhaps nurses in hospitals, doctors' offices and schools do, but those of us in slightly alternative roles are creating the public's image of us as we go along, educating people that nurses do many things not involving a hospital. I have never been a hospital nurse. In fact, I vowed prior to graduation that I would never work as a nurse in any setting where a uniform or scrubs were required. (What a non-comformist!)

So, the next time someone says to you, "So, what do you do?", be aware of how they follow up that question. Do they put you in a mental box and carry on, or do they probe to further understand you, your work, and its place in the world? Food for thought, and for conversation.
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