Science Of Small Talk

The science of social behavior, one interaction at a time

The Elusive Power of Daily Situations

Learning a bit more about human nature by going under the knife.
SurgeryLast week I had minor surgery after breaking two fingers, which explains why it's going to take me 5 times as long to write this entry as it'll take you to read it. Depending on my mood at the time of the question, if you ask me how I broke them, I'd either tell you by pulling orphans out of the rubble after a small earthquake or by hitting a foul ball with a wet bat during a slo-pitch softball game. I'll let you decide which is the more impressive feat.

I'd actually never broken a bone before and other than having my wisdom teeth out, I'd never had surgery either. But the morning of the procedure I really wasn't nervous at all. In fact, I was much less anxious about it than my wife, who was also still getting over her completely justifiable irritation at me for how I suffered the injuries (don't worry, she likes orphans; it's the playing softball in the pouring rain that didn't go over particularly well).

After registering at the hospital I was led into a small room for a last pre-op interview by the nursing staff. Then I was left alone to change into my gown, or "johnnie" as they amusingly referred to it. When I asked for clarification on this sartorial process, I was informed that, yes, indeed, I did need to remove every last bit of personal clothing before embarking on a 30-minute outpatient procedure.

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So now I'm sitting alone in a tiny, dark room that looks like it's also used for storing outmoded computer equipment, with nothing but a flimsy hospital gown between me and the rest of the world. And I can't even tie it closed because, as I failed to mention until now, one broken finger is on each hand. (I know, I know, I'm a marvel of orthopedic science.) In other words, they've just given me an ill-fitting outfit with the one type of fastener that I can't close in my current state, a drawstring. Wonderful. The nurse returns to brief me on the events to follow, but I'm barely listening because I have to continuously check the unraveling knot on the back of my gown to ensure that our interaction remains firmly entrenched in the category of nurse/patient without devolving into that of artist/nude model.

Next I'm led into the room with the bed I'll be in for the procedure, where I meet with the anaesthesia team. They brief me on my options in a matter-of-fact, yet thorough manner. I can get a local finger block, though they're not certain that'll be strong enough if the surgeon decides he needs to put screws in the finger. I can get a block on the entire arm, the unlikely side effect for which would be nerve damage. I can "go under" altogether, with or without a breathing tube—and by the way, do I have any dental work they should be aware of in case said tube needs to be inserted quickly?

I have to admit, by this point I am getting a bit nervous. Mind you, everyone's just doing their jobs, and doing so in a courteous manner at that. The nurse was friendly and reassuring; the anaesthesia folks spoke in terms that were clear and accessible to a layperson. But various aspects of this situation now have me feeling pretty uncomfortable and even a bit spooked. I'm in an unfamiliar place, I'm making decisions about medical issues about which I know very little in consultation with people I've never met before, and did I mention that I'm still naked under an uncomfortable gown whose status remains anything but secure?

Sam Sommers, Ph.D., is a social psychologist at Tufts University and author of the forthcoming book Situations Matter. more...

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