Over the course of my life, I’ve grown accustomed to a certain type of social exchange when introducing myself:
Hi, I’m Esther. Nice to meet you. What do you do?
Maybe not quite so direct, but you see my point. Inquiring about a person’s profession is normal and even expected during any conversation in the United States. When I complete my physical therapy evaluations, I ask this question of all patients so I can grasp their prior level of function.
However, my experiences on the road and in my daily life have shown me the limitations of this question, mainly because it can set up boundaries. For example, I am a physical therapist by trade. I’m very proud of what I do for a living because I’m helping people rehabilitate and live their lives as independently as possible. In fact, I worked extremely hard to be able to have such an honorable occupation. And yet, being a physical therapist does not encapsulate who I am as a person. I love photography, literature, nature, and, of course, travel.
Asking about my patients’ cultural backgrounds opens up new ground even if they are in the most dire of situations. For this reason, I usually ask them “Where are you from?” as part of my interview. Obviously, it’s important to have the maximum amount of information needed to gauge each person’s physical capabilities. However, when I ask them about their origins, my patients tend to relax. Another door has opened–they can talk to me about something more personal.
I live in South Florida which is considered a cultural melting pot. Everyone knows that this region of the U.S. has a large Latin American community, but South Florida is also home to many Russian, Romanian, Finnish, and Haitian communities. When I meet people at work, I’m always intrigued by stories of their homelands. When I say, “Tell me about where you’re from,” I give people the reigns to momentarily steer the conversation away from their worries. I help them to forget about their ailments and help them open up to me, a complete stranger, visiting them in their most vulnerable moments.
As someone who has trouble in social situations, this ability to converse with strangers didn’t always come easy for me. It wasn’t until I attended college in Boston, visited Israel with Birthright, and studied abroad in England that I became more at ease when striking up conversations. I still have, and may always face, some form of social anxiety. However, my passion for travel and all the topics linked to it have changed my life when meeting people. When I go to work, which is a very high energy environment, the topic of travel smooths those conversational ripples for both myself and the patient. Even if I meet a patient from a country that is completely off my radar, I ask the patient to educate me. This gives them a sense of purpose and makes them feel more in control of their situation. Please don’t mistake me: I’m a dedicated physical therapist and I love motivating my patients during their sessions. We don’t spend the entire time talking about travel and countries we’d someday like to visit.
Empathy is Key
However, stop for a moment and place yourselves in a different pair of shoes. Imagine that you’ve been in a car accident and ended up in a cold room with a broken body. Wires are coming out of every end of your body. There’s an irritating beeping noise being emitted by a machine out of your reach, and indescribable pain consumes your whole body. You’ve been restricted to certain planes of movement to prevent further injury or delay healing. Suddenly, a short woman with frizzy hair (your’s truly) walks in and explains that you’ll be getting out of bed today. How would you feel? Petrified? Angry? Exhausted? Now, add pain to this mixture and we’ve got ourselves a real party.
As a medical professional, it is very easy to forget that the patient is a human being. Trust me, we never intend for these misperceptions to occur. However, when faced with a thousand and one challenges in a day, our brains are fried and we forget to empathize with the people turning to us for help. Medicine is a fickle world, but where would we be without it? That’s why I include this very form of communication in almost all of my conversations with patients throughout the day. The question “Where are you from?” can unlock an entirely different door and help professionals establish good rapport with others.
Teaching Each Other
This is why I ask this important question in all of my patient interactions, as well as in my every day life. “Where are you from?” can turn into “tell me about your hometown”, which can eventually lead to “what else is there to do around there?” Pretty soon, this person just helped you plan your next trip. I can start this conversation during our introductions, continue it when my patients need to rest between their exercises, and finish it up at the end of the session.
Thanks to my travel experiences, this basic question allows me to establish a deeper relationship with my patients. In return, these people have taught me the value of reaching out to others, a skill which has aided me on my journeys across the globe.
So I ask you, readers: where are you from?