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.
Last 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).

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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.

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?

My guess is these are aspects of this situation that the physicians and nurses with whom I was interacting paid no attention. But to me, the room, my dress, the sudden appearance of an anesthesiologist who wants to discuss the small risk of permanent nerve damage three seconds after introducing himself and shaking my splint... this is what transformed my disposition from blasé to anxious.

A few days after the procedure, I recounted my experience to my father-in-law, a neurologist who practices in Boston and teaches at Harvard. He told me that whenever he's asked to give a talk to graduating medical students or new residents, he always tells them that one of the best things that can happen to them professionally is to get sick. Not a serious illness, of course, but enough to get them struggling to book a timely appointment, wrestling with the insurance company, sitting too long in waiting rooms, and just generally getting a refresher on what being a patient is all about.

I think it's great advice, and certainly not just for health care professionals. It's useful for those of us who work as professors to once again experience what it's like to be a student in a lecture course. For psychologists to experience an hour as a patient. For the customer service representative to spend 30 minutes on hold. Without such experiences, or at the very least imagining such experiences, it's far too easy to lose sight of the situational factors that influence the people with whom we interact during the course of doing our jobs.

As we know from decades of research in social psychology, many of us are far too inattentive to the power of the situation in our daily interactions. (For a great blog that explores the scope and implications of this tendency as it applies to varied domains such as law, politics, business, and more, check out The Situationist.) And it seems as if this tendency is only magnified when we operate within the comfortable confines of our own professional worlds.

Of course, my father-in-law's prescription can also be applied to professional relationships in the opposite direction. The student irritated that her professor hasn't responded to an email within three hours would be well-advised to consider that the other 99 students in the class could be making simultaneous requests for personal attention. The airline traveler might benefit from the realization that this particular clerk at the lost luggage desk is not the person who sent his bags to Austin instead of Boston. It would behoove the patient nearing his third hour of waiting in the ER to recognize that, painful though it may be, a jackass who breaks two fingers hitting a softball does not require as prompt medical attention as the newly-arrived 7-year-old girl suffering an asthma attack, even if he's pretty sure that the kid is just a faker. And so on.

Situational factors exert a powerful influence on our daily interactions. We'd all be well-served to take the time to stop, notice, and ponder them more often. Doing so gives us a deeper understanding of human nature, presents us with opportunities for personal growth, and enables us to turn the tables on otherwise threatening situations. Me? I have a new outfit in mind for teaching my first lecture in the fall—a fresh-out-of-the-bag johnnie. This time double-knotted, however.

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

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