I walked into a shop; I was the only customer. I was thinking of buying a Kit Kat or asking if they had any hats.
There were two people behind the counter and I wondered if they felt overstaffed or wary of impending cuts the way everyone else is. They don’t need two people, I thought, but it was nice that they could keep each other company. Because that was what they seemed to be doing.
I smiled and said: “Excuse me but…” only to be told to “wait a moment” because assistant number one, a disengaged blonde with too much eyeshadow, was telling assistant number two, an overweight woman who looked perpetually angry, about someone called Darren who had stopped wearing socks because his mum refused to sew “left” and “right” into them any more.
‘Being talked around or ignored is depersonalising, particularly for someone burdened with patienthood and all its trappings. Yet it still happens’
Darren reasoned that this meant he had a 50 per cent chance of putting his socks on the wrong feet and that risk was too great. Assistant number two looked livid.
Still. They were finishing. Often in such circumstances it is the third person who breaks the rhythm of exchange and provides the transition from closed and excluding conversation to open and enquiring but, at this point, I had nothing to say. I coughed, they looked at me, I shrugged.
Finally, assistant number two spoke: “They’re all made abroad, you know. Socks are. China probably. Or Holland. That’s why. Anyway, what can we do for you?”
I wanted to say “What?” or “Holland?” but I shrugged and said: “Do you know - I’ve forgotten what I wanted,” and left.
The Care Quality Commission’s annual report says that nearly one quarter of patients report nurses talking “over” them. Being talked around or ignored is, of course, fundamentally depersonalising, particularly for someone burdened with patienthood and all its trappings. Yet it still happens as much now as it ever did.
Now, far be it from me to insult the more talented retail assistants out there, but many of them are untrained in communicating. They may pick up that smiling helps but some of them hate their jobs - the hours, the pay, the annoying customers - so much that the only power they have is the power of rudeness.
Nurses, however, are educated in communication skills. They have the ability to know what constitutes good communication and the knowledge to reflect on how and when to apply it.
So, why are many not doing as well as they could? Is it thoughtlessness? Have they forgotten what they knew? Having a bad day? Or is it sometimes something worse? Something slightly more sinister? Are there nurses who choose - perhaps subconsciously - to be rude? Choose to make someone feel unseen? Because they feel angry or powerless or undervalued?
It’s a worrying choice, isn’t it? The idea that some nurses are lacking in basic communication skills or are choosing to be rude or aggressive. Either way, it needs to be addressed. Communication is the heart of nursing; if that stops beating, we are really in trouble.