Cultural Communication Strategies, KindEthics Newsletter vol. 2
Quote of the Day:
Arguing is really saying, “If you were more like me, then I could like you better.”
Cultural Communication Strategies
What I want to talk about today is the role of culture in our interactions both inside the healthcare system as well as in our daily life. What I want to focus on is our role in dealing with people from different cultures, religions and belief systems. So often we blame others as they are the problem or that they are making it worse when sometimes it is us. Today, I want to empower you to know that you can make a difference and you can make the interaction better. The communication strategies I will teach you will help with difficult relatives or co-workers as well as with your patients. For the next two paragraphs I will focus on the healthcare professional and then after that, everything I will discuss will be helpful to all of us.
Why should we be culturally aware in healthcare? When we ask questions about cultural and religious beliefs we can discover what treatments people are receiving outside of our care. Are they going to a healer, an herbalist, a shaman, an acupuncturist or someone else outside the healthcare system? If so, we need this information in order to protect them from harmful interactions with the treatments we are prescribing. We don’t have to like that they are going to see these people, just realize that they are. You can think what you like but be careful not to criticize them aloud because they will just hide the information from you in the future. If your patient is afraid to tell you the truth about alternative medicines, they may be in danger when they go into surgery.
We also want to know what their values are and how that affects their ability to choose the medical treatments we are offering. Many non-compliant patients are being non-adherent for very good reasons; reasons that are prescribed by their culture or religion. We don’t have to agree with their beliefs but it is important that we understand them so we can work together to find a way to get them to accept at least some of what we are offering them. And at the end of life, we definitely need to ask about how to respect their religion and culture during the dying process.
The most important reason though to be culturally respectful is because we’ve would want to be respected if we were the patient. It is very likely that your own doctor will be from a different religion or culture and you may find yourself in a cultural conflict as well. I would advise you to use “The Platinum Rule®” instead of the golden rule. This states that we should treat others as they wish to be treated, not as we would wish to be treated. (I have attached this article at the end of this newsletter.)
All cultures teach their members the preferred or right way of doing or being. We are each brought up in a family that teaches us the right way to behave. And because this training happens when were so young, we believe that what we’ve been taught is “normal” and “natural” and “right”. I am a Norwegian American, so what I believe is normal, natural and right is based on Norwegian values. So what I believe is normal and what you believe is abnormal. Yes, I just said that. Your beliefs are unnatural and not right unless you believe like I do. Of course this statement is ridiculous. This is a perfect example of the cultural anthropology concept of ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is the belief that the customs and practices of one’s own culture are superior to those of other cultures. With ethnocentrism in place, it will increase the differences between us and it will lead us to us versus the “other” thinking. The concept of the “other” is described as the “other” as being less than, less valuable or less intelligent. One might say, “There’s us and then there’s you, the other” in a derogatory manner. We need to realize that one culture is not better or worse, just different. If we were brought up in that other country or culture or religion, we would believe as they do. It just depends on where we were born. I know that there are valuable ideas and values to be found in all cultures even if they’re not exactly like mine. We all want our children to grow up and be happy and healthy. We all want to be able to pay our bills and to provide for our family. We are more alike than different. I encourage you to look for the positive similarities and focus on those during your interactions.
Most people who teach cultural sensitivity would tell you to not judge. I wouldn’t say that. I think it’s normal to make judgments and to have opinions. But we need to figure out how to acknowledge our judgments, then put them aside and not act on them, especially as professionals. Many times I walk into a situation and have a strong reaction to a person but I have to manage that reaction and rise above my bias or first impression. If you feel a judgment or criticism rise up in you, acknowledge it silently and then put it aside and treat the person with compassion and respect. You don’t have to agree with the person, just treat them well. Advocate for them as they may be vulnerable and unable to speak up for themselves because of the cultural or religious barriers. I tell healthcare providers that when you’re about to walk in the exam room or the hospital room, leave your biases or negative expectations outside the door and remember that this person still needs our expertise and support. We can do this anytime we are in an interaction which is getting us upset. We can control our actions and our words during the interaction.
Quite often people are experiencing “relocation stress” during their healthcare experience. Cultural anthropology defines “relocation stress” as the stress one feels when moving from one culture into another culture. Medicine is a culture. It has its own cultural rules, values and a hierarchy for communication. When people come into the healthcare system, unless they work in healthcare system, they don’t know the cultural rules and how to get what they need. And this creates stress on top of the stress they are experiencing about their illness or pending surgery. If you are new to the healthcare process, like my dad was when he went in for double bypass surgery, you need to ask more questions and bring an advocate with you.
So what can we do when we have to deal with people from cultures that we don’t understand or we don’t like. I’m here to tell you, you have a lot of power. Your expectations will affect the interaction. You may have something from communication theory called “selective perceptions”, which is where we only see what we want to see in order to justify our preconceived opinions. Let me give you an example. I have a relative I don’t like. (You probably do too.) Every time I interact with her, I look for things that will reinforce my belief that I don’t like her. So each time, I would find more and more things that confirmed this belief about her. And over time, my dislike grew. Well one day, I realized that I teach other people to have more power over their interactions, so maybe I should put it to the test. (I know, I should have done this a long time ago.) So the next time I interacted with her I looked for something positive about her. I found out that I really respected how well she feeds her children. She feeds them very healthy food and they willing eat it. As I left that interaction, I focused on the positive thing I had found about her and reinforced this new perception as I drove home. Each time I looked for and found more and more things to appreciate about her. Is she ever going to be my favorite person? No. But now I see her differently and in a more balanced and compassionate manner. Just like all of us, she has a combination of good and bad qualities.
The next communication concept I’m going to tell you about is the “halo effect” and the “reverse halo effect.” This is one of my favorites. If you see one positive thing about a person, you will then assume that everything about this person is positive. Or if you see one negative thing about a person, you will then assume that everything about them is negative. We see this with teenagers who begin dating. They will say, “He’s perfect or she’s perfect.” Well, you and I know that nobody’s perfect, but the teenager sees this person with the halo affect and don’t see that the person they are dating are a combination of good and bad qualities. And when we try to tell them differently, they defend that person. They are a victim of the halo effect. The same thing happens when we meet someone from a culture which we don’t like. We use the reverse halo affect and assume that just because they’re from a certain culture, we won’t like them. This is all or nothing thinking and it will get us into trouble. We need to see people as a balance of positive and negative characteristics. Even if there is something you don’t like about a particular culture or religion, it doesn’t have to dictate the whole picture of how you see the individual person. (There are plenty of people I don’t like, but you would never know it as I put aside my opinions and just treat people well.)
One more concept that comes into effect in our daily life is the concept of the “self-fulfilling prophecy”. This is when our negative expectation may lead to us to create that which we didn’t want to occur. Let me give you an example. Every time you go to work, there is a person there that annoys you. (And lots of people annoy me so I can relate.) So when you walk in, you greet everybody warmly but ignore that one person. Or maybe you greet them but choose to greet them in a cold manner. Then you are surprised when the person reacts to you and says, “Have a nice day” with a hostile attitude. This is when most of us will say, “See, look at them they’re always being rude.” But who really started it that day? You did by your attitude and the way you started the interaction. I would challenge you to try another way. The next time you go into work and interact with this person, I would encourage you to greet them warmly with a smile and say something personally kind. This person may be shocked and not know how to react, but over time, they will begin to warm up and your relationship will get better. It may not happen immediately, but if you stick with it, chances are it will get better. Of course it may never be perfect, but I could settle for better. How about you?
One final technique we can use is to realize that things may not always be as they may appear. We may have misunderstood or misperceived the situation. We may be wrong. We need to remember to allow in new information even if it contradicts your stereotype.
In fact, I would encourage you to look for information which breaks your stereotype. Challenge yourself to learn more about the group that you are uncomfortable with or dislike. You may be surprised how much good you can find in them. I would also caution you to be aware of relying on first impressions. Many times we meet people when they are in a crisis or in grief or are overwhelmed by their life. We need to treat them gently, as we would want to be treated if we were in a crisis. An example of this is the patient who comes to the front desk to check in for their appointment and is rude to the receptionist. My first assumption would be that this guy is a jerk. But I know better and don’t jump to that conclusion. (I try not to make assumptions or jump to conclusions because many times I am wrong because I don’t have enough information.) I realize that there might be something going on in his life that I don’t know about. Maybe his wife just died. Maybe he just found out that his son has cancer. Maybe he was just in a car accident. All I know about him is that in spite of his rudeness, he needs my care and support. I also find that when I treat people well and in a caring manner, their rudeness or anger dissipates and interaction goes better. When I treat them better, it gets better. People laugh at me when I say, “Happy Monday” when I come into work or go through the security gate at the airport. But I know that I’m setting a tone and trying to be a positive part of their day. Over time, I have seen offices change their attitude from negativity into optimism, just because I kept saying, “Happy Monday.” Again, I have power over these moments. I can make things better or worse depending on what I bring to the interaction. I have this power and I choose to use it. So can you.
Have a kind and respectful day.
Detailed article describing “The Platinum Rule®”:
What is “The Platinum Rule®” ? Let me tell you how it differs from the Golden Rule. The Golden Rule, which is found in almost every religion says, “Treat people as you would like to be treated or Do unto others as you would like to be done unto.” The Platinum Rule is even better. It says, “Treat people as they would like to be treated or Do unto others as they would like to be done unto.” It is actually a more respectful way of treating people. The Golden Rule assumes that everyone is the same and would want exactly what you would want. But we aren’t alike and we can get into trouble making this assumption. Let me give you an example.
When someone you know has died and people want to give you comfort, “Do you want people to hug you or do you prefer people to not touch you?” Well, I am a hugger so if I use the Golden Rule, then I am going to hug you whether you like it or not. But if I use the Platinum Rule, then I am going to ask you if you could use a hug and depending on what you tell me, I will respect your answer.
The Platinum Rule works really well in America. We are all different. We have different religions, cultures, values and basic preferences. What I personally believe in is respect. Therefore, I will ask how you like to be shown respect and try to honor it. That is why if you tell me you don’t want to have surgery, even though you might die without it, I will respect your answer. I won’t agree with it but it is not my body that has to go through the experience. It is yours. And you are the only one who can say what is right for your life and your body. Now I might ask you if you would consider changing your mind because I don’t want you to die, but ultimately, it is your decision.
I will respect you and I hope that you will consider asking me how I like to be shown respect too.
Have a kind and respectful day.
The Platinum Rule® is a registered trademark of Dr. Tony Alessandra. Used with permission. All other rights are reserved in all media.