Farmers vs. ranchers. Jets vs. Sharks. Arabs vs. Israelis. Bourgeoisie vs. proletariat. Packer fans vs. Viking fans. Examples of seemingly unbridgeable gulfs abound in literature and life. It’s sometimes difficult to picture these groups even talking to each other, much less connecting. In the 1990s, books like Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, and You Just Don’t Understand, popularized the notion that, because men and women see and process the world so differently, it creates inherent barriers to effective communication. While criticized in some circles for over-generalization and stereotyping, the research behind these books supports the idea that differences in life experience can undermine meaningful dialogue and relationship-building between people.
New evidence shows that this is particularly true about class background. In a series of studies, Stephanie Cote and Michael Kraus showed that interaction between people of different socioeconomic status were marked by verbal and non-verbal indications of lower degrees of engagement and emotional connection.
Think about the implications. Many in the healthcare professions are at least in the middle class, while a large number of our patients and families are significantly less advantaged. Does this interfere with our ability to bond with them, to empathize? At times we have to admit it does. Who hasn’t heard (and at times made) disparaging comments about “frequent flyers,” patients who are “non-compliant,” folks abusing the system? This happens all too often. Yet by and large, even those of us near the top of the economic ladder show amazing cognitive and emotional connection to those we care for. How do we do it?
The answer, I think, comes from some of the same studies. When participants were asked to interact with others of different background, their engagement and connectedness increased when they were first asked to identify points of commonality. We see this when people of widely varying status come together in fellowship in places of worship (shared faith), or sports leagues or clubs (shared interests), or life-threatening emergencies (shared mortality and fate). For us, I believe it is the kids, our value of purpose. We caregivers and providers on the one hand, and families on the other, share an interest first and foremost in the child. It’s when we forget that commonality that we fail to make a real connection, moving from curious to judgmental.
One of my favorite books, The Lemon Tree, tells the story of a Palestinian and an Israeli who bond over a shared love of a piece of property. It shouldn’t be hard for each of us to try to find that one piece of common ground when we deal with families or colleagues who may be from such different circumstances that connecting is a challenge. Even Packer and Viking fans can agree about the Bears.