Who knows how often our ancestors talked to each other about their health. Surely they had their ailments and perhaps shared symptoms related to their infirmities with others. Today, however there is little hesitancy (more often among women) about turning polite conversation in the direction of one’s health. Ailments have somehow become standard, acceptable conversational fare. Why this should be is not at all obvious. After all, much of it concerns pain, discomfort, disease, medications, disability – ordinarily not the positive self-image people prefer to project. Let us, therefore, speculate as to why this happens and how such conversations may proceed.
• Thanks to an incessant barrage of TV commercials, health issues have become decidedly mainstream. Leg cramps, backaches, weight loss, elevated cholesterol, psoriasis, insomnia, diabetes, high blood pressure, bladder leakage, cancer, depression, headaches, erectile dysfunction, brain functioning, early onset Alzheimers – these and many more disorders are perceived as widespread and open for discussion.
• Overweight? Who isn’t? Dieting (sometimes related to health concerns) is a subject most everyone is comfortable discussing. Who hasn’t been on a diet at one time or another? Which ones work? Which are the least stressful and demanding? “How much weight have you lost?” Some folks like to boast. Weight loss represents an acceptable way to do so.
• When people converse they often engage in storytelling. Health issues lend themselves to this form by typically involving sequential narratives from onset, diagnosis, treatment and then hopefully relief and cure.
• For those people who welcome the opportunity to talk about themselves, an injury or illness provides the occasion to do so without appearing overly self-centered.
• Asking someone about their health or how they’re feeling is a means of demonstrating concern for others, surely an admirable trait. It can be risky, however, may open the floodgates and result in an interminable saga.
• Steering conversation toward matters of sickness and injury can be informative. People who have been through such experiences often have much to offer with regard to appropriate therapies and effective medications.
• Strong bonds may form when people discover they suffer and are battling a similar illness.
• An element of competition may enter when it comes to their doctor. Specialists, particularly those affiliated with prestigious medical centers, are usually regarded as a cut above. Having such physicians serves to elevate that patient above others. On the other hand, being under the care of “local” doctors may not measure up.
• People often are eager to reveal health information about others, especially when they’re in sole possession of the relevant information. There is, of course, an element of concern but also some satisfaction in being the “first” to know. “Did you hear? John was taken to the hospital.” “Martha had a stroke.” Such “medical gossip” is a conversational staple.
• Once people learn about someone seriously ill they will doubtlessly express concern but may also offer an explanation that casts responsibility upon the victim. “Sam never took care of himself.” “Do you know how overweight Laura was?” “George refused to go to a doctor.” Take heed – there’s a lesson to be learned.
So, the next time you’re sick, injured or just feeling lousy, don’t hesitate to bring it up in conversation. Expect some sympathy and possibly useful information. Plus you’ve created a bond, having disclosed a matter both private and personal.