Please pass the role: separating people from their various roles helps us avoid mindless mistakes and enjoy human interaction – just think about it

Please pass the role: separating people from their various roles helps us avoid mindless mistakes and enjoy human interaction – just think about it – Brief Article

Ellen J. Langer

RECENTLY SLIPPED ON THE ICE AND FOUND MYSELF IN THE HOSPITAL. THERE, I WAS A PATIENT, A PARTICIPANT OBSERVER AND, WHEN THE PAIN PASSED, A PSYCHOLOGIST. SOME OF MY OBSERVATIONS CARRY WITH THEM IMPLICIT SUGGESTIONS FOR IMPROVING HOSPITAL STAYS BUT MAY JUST AS READILY SPEAK TO OUR WORK, SCHOOL OR HOME ENVIRONMENTS.

It was 2:30 in the morning, and this was the first time that my medication wasn’t affecting my memory. A nurse entered my hospital room and I said, “Hi.” That was all I said. She changed her demeanor instantly, exclaiming that I was a breath of fresh air and had made her day. I was startled that such a small gesture of recognition had such a big effect, so I talked to her about it. She said that people don’t like to be awakened and are often very unpleasant as a result. In these instances patients treat nurses as the enemy, and nurses–expecting this–act their part in the drama. There are no real people present, just patients and nurses, each enacting their role-directed behavior. Add a person and the drama changes for the better for both parties.

I ring the bell for help. If the nurses are busy, my request feels burdensome and they resent me. But patients cannot know how busy the staff is and they wait not knowing if or when someone will come. They feel ignored, and nurses feel put-upon. Imagine instead that people took the place of nurses and patients. Patient: “Hi. Is it busy right now?” Nurse: “Yes, very. What do you need?” Patient: “Can someone come help me to the chair when they have a moment?” Nurse: “Sure. It may be a few minutes, though.” Now the wait is easier, and understanding replaces mounting hostility. Consider the difficult request that a bedpan be removed. No one wants to do it, but it must be done. If it is done in role, there may be resentment on the part of the aide or perhaps guilt or helplessness for the patient. I said to a nurse in this circumstance, “I’m sorry, I wish I had another option.” She felt badly and said, “Don’t think twice about it, it’s my job.” She no longer resented it and I was grateful.

The occupational therapist arrives and announces, “I am the OT. My name is Jane.” I say, “Hello, I’m Ellen. What did you say your name was?” By separating her name from her occupation, she seemed more a person to me. This is important because medical advice is often one-size-fits-all. To adjust it to our individual needs, we must feel free to ask questions, refuse help or ask for more. It would have been hard to ask the OT for help. It was much easier asking Jane.

There is an even more important reason to pass the role whenever possible: Mistakes arise from mindlessness. If interactions are not individuated, they risk unfolding in a mindless manner. Role-to-role behavior is rule-bound and normative. There are times, however, when rules should not be followed. Some instances require paying attention to the way one situation differs from another. This may be hard for nurses because they are always treating patients, but we aren’t always just patients. It is easier for us to stay mindful if we are who we are and not what our role may “demand.”

One nurse wanted to test my blood sugar level. As a non-diabetic person, I politely refused; as a patient, I might not have. Psychologist Robert Cialdini, Ph.D., cites an incident that pointedly speaks to role mindlessness. After treating a patient’s earache, a doctor wrote a prescription–next to the medication and dosage he wrote, “R ear.” The nurse didn’t realize that meant “right ear” and so, with the patient’s consent, administered the medication in the rear. Just think about it: If we passed the role and people were present, wouldn’t we all be better off in the end?

Ellen J. Langer Ph.D., is a professor of psychology at Harvard University. She is the author of The Power of Mindful Learning (Perseus, 1997) and Mindfulness (Perseus, 1989).

COPYRIGHT 2002 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group