The End of Polite Conversation? Part One

This is part one of a two-part series. Click here for the conclusion.


On February 26, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer vetoed a bill that would have made it legal for businesses to discriminate against LGBT customers whose identity ran counter to the business owner’s religious views. Similar bills in other states are facing major opposition, as the majority of Americans increasingly see a person’s gender or sexual identity as that individual’s own private business, nothing else. But conservatives haven’t given up. And even if laws allowing businesses to deny services to LGBTs don’t come to pass, what’s stopping the butcher, the baker, or even worse, your doctor, from giving you an earful?

“You should get a medal,” my doctor said. He had just asked how long my husband and I had been married (eighteen years). “You should get reward stickers, like we give to our kids. Our culture should be rewarding your relationship, the right relationship.”

I felt my heartbeat quicken. Just minutes before, the nurse had clocked my blood pressure at a very desirable 110/70. I could feel those numbers shooting upwards with each breath. I wasn’t there to talk about my marriage, but my sleep habits—namely my insomnia—during my third, and hopefully last, visit.

Pulling into the parking lot for my first appointment, I’d been confronted with a huge shrine, complete with a towering statue of the Virgin Mary clutching baby Jesus to her breast and a lantern sitting at her feet with a flame lit in honor of unborn children. I sat and stared out my windshield at the sheer spectacle of it. There were benches around the statue where I suppose patients, or anyone else, could sit and pray, just a stone’s throw from our town’s tiny Planned Parenthood clinic (which does not provide abortions).

I wondered what the shrine might have cost, and assumed the medical practice was doing well; it had taken me awhile to get an appointment, and the parking lot was full. I was just so very, very tired. I attempted to blink away my morning headache, not yet relieved by my first dose of caffeine. I needed help sleeping, and this doctor was the only sleep specialist in town. And so I went in.

At that first visit, we discussed my insomnia at length. I learned a lot from the doctor about sleep cycles and what was considered “normal.” There was only one moment that made me feel uncomfortable. While going through my family history, the doctor had inappropriately asked why I’d “started so late” having children and why I had only two. He and his wife had eight. “She just finished breastfeeding, and she’s fifty,” he said proudly, as though he were the one producing the milk.

I laughed nervously and changed the subject. I’d gotten somewhat used to inappropriate comments, often of the conservative religious variety, since moving to my rural Ohio town ten years before. But the comments were often ones I simply overheard. Being confronted personally was something new.

At a recent visit to a different doctor, I noted the only reading material in the waiting room was the Bible. Furthermore, on the mirror above the coat rack, a collage had been created with quotes from Billy Graham overlapping ones from Abraham Lincoln. The unifying theme amongst the quotes, which took me some time to discern, was that God wanted people to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. I never would have put Lincoln and Graham together, there on the same mirror (which no one could actually use since the glass had been completely obscured) but my podiatrist apparently thought the two men were suitable bedfellows. My former dentist dispensed with any second-guessing concerning his motives. His only waiting room reading material was a stack of pamphlets on how to be born again.

After my second visit to the sleep specialist (during which we analyzed the results of an actigraph test that recorded my rest/activity cycles round the clock), I felt much more confident that I was on the path to sleeping better. The man had, in fact, helped me. And the only other annoying comment he’d made was: “If you wake up too early, just get out of bed and catch up on your Scriptures.” I wasn’t sure if he meant reading Scriptures would help me fall back to sleep, but I didn’t ask.

I had learned to sidestep the shrine on my way into his office. People are entitled to their opinions, I thought. I’ll just ignore it. Plus, I’d been taught as a kid to respect authority, such as that of the priest and deacons in our church, of my father, of anyone in uniform, including police officers, and, certainly, doctors. I tried to imagine the shoe on the other foot. What if I was a deeply conservative, religious woman visiting an openly gay sleep specialist? What if he commented on how lucky I was to have two children when he and his partner were having trouble adopting? I couldn’t hold the idea in my head for long; it was too absurd to imagine where I live.

Yes, it bothers me when professional people, of any profession, feel the need to broach topics such as religion completely out of context. Still, I’m not someone who enjoys confrontation; I wasn’t going to challenge the sleep specialist about it, as long as he didn’t take it too far. He’d stepped up to the imaginary line I’d drawn in my head, but he hadn’t stepped over it, not yet.

Click here to read part two of “The End of Polite Conversation?”

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  • disqus_BdJa9uO13y

    I think the glaring issue here is the Christian majority in this country and unequal double-standard they impose simply by benefit of being the most predominant religion. A few months back I recall getting no less than THREE postcard or pamphlet advertisements in the mail, on the same day, from local churches trying to obtain my business. I immediately thought to myself how enraged the local residents would be if they received Islamic (or dare I say, atheist) propaganda or advertisements in their boxes.

    I used to be of the opinion that it’s best to keep my mouth shut when people openly disclose their views based upon religious ideals, but now I’m not so sure. The best way for inconsiderate small-talkers to be aware of their shortcomings is by allowing them the opportunity to feel just as uncomfortable as they choose to make their company.

    • techbum

      APPLAUSE!

    • Richard

      Another approach is to not allow “small talkers” to make you feel uncomfortable. How we react to situations is at least partly a matter of choice. We might choose to see the “small talkers” as ignorant children who we hope will outgrow their foolishness.
      I saw a German graduate student and our tour guide to Cologne cathedral treat a priest this way once. We all grinned at her condescension. The priest was clueless. It was really amusing.

    • bobfairlane

      Are Christians really a majority of anything, or are they just the most demanding?

      • Bradlee Clark

        I agree. They’re not the majority, but they are extremely vocal. However, like Denzel Washington said, “The loudest voice in the room is the weakest.”

  • Pamela Langston

    A pulse is not recorded as 110/70. That would be a blood pressure.

    • Frank Robinson

      The author never stated that pulse was 110/70. Both heart rate and blood pressure increase as part of stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system in fight or flight response.

      • Pamela Langston

        Yes, she did. She has since corrected it, but her original article stated “The nurse clocked my pulse at 110/70”.

        • Randster

          Really? That’s what you took away from this. Nitpicking her knowledge of physiological terms.

  • Eric

    Just an FYI the 110/70 number is your blood pressure not your pulse. A pulse is a single number whereas blood pressure is two separate numbers representing systolic and diastolic.

    • Frank Robinson

      The author never stated that her heart rate was 110/70. Both heart rate and blood pressure increase as part of stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system in fight or flight response.

    • Kastle

      The author refers to this number as blood pressure, it’s all in the print above.

  • Erica

    As a sleep medicine professional who lived and worked in Ohio until last year, I’d be really curious to find out who this doctor is.

  • Thom Remington

    I’ve often been struck by the vehemence with which folks want to impress you with the fervency of their beliefs. Quite honestly, it sounds to me as though they’re trying to convince themselves as much as they’re trying to convince others.

  • jhamaker

    I manage a movie theatre, and I am often confronted with similar conversations when we play a movie with religious or conservative themes. This week we opened Son of God, and on Friday I had a regular customer ask me if I had seen the movie. This is a person who I have regularly had conversations about a number of different movies, and there had never been any kind of objection when I mentioned I wasn’t interested in a particular movie. But when I said I wasn’t interested in Son of God, her demeanor toward me changed. She wouldn’t look directly at me, and avoided any kind of eye contact or conversation. Clearly she was in some way put off by my lack of interest in this religious film.

    I’ll be interested to see how she responds to me the next time I see her.

    • Richard

      To paraphrase Hitchens, “Being an atheist means not only that I don’t believe in God, but that I suspect you don’t either.”
      Atheists pose a challenge to believers–far more than believers in other, even very different, faiths. An atheist implicitly calls attention to the believer’s credulity, of which the believer is usually aware, if only subconsciously.

  • Kathy Riley Kakacek

    While Ms. Campbell is to be commended for telling the doctor that she disagreed with him, that isn’t the issue here. It is, as the title of this piece suggests, that his opinions, whatever they are, have no place in polite conversation, and especially not in a conversation between a professional and his client in his place of business. She should have stuck by her original statement, that she was there to discuss her medical condition. Period.

  • Pietro Sabatino

    I like the wording of your last paragraph, and the problem we face is that to the fervently religious there is no such thing as religion out of context. It is their raison d’etre and will be spoken about any any time.

  • Bradlee Clark

    We brought our then 4-yr-old son to his pediatrician to get some ideas for addressing some behavioral issues. We were asked, and I paraphrase, “How do you expect him to behave when you’re not providing him a Christian environment?” We never returned.

    • ktappe

      Because of course Christians never act up. /s

    • bobfairlane

      Yes, if they were training him to kill infidels, and to study the -K-o-r-an- Bible, he’d be much more disciplined and too busy to commit pranks or disrespect his elders.

  • P.A.

    We went into our general practitioners office today to pick up some paperwork. The TV was on in the corner for everyone to see. It was the Joyce Meyer Ministry Hour. Not only did I find it offensive, I found it ironic since the doctor & 99% of his patients are Muslim. A man, waiting for his wife, was trying hard not to be enraged by a woman on screen reading a bible and laughing about a joke.

  • Richard

    Most comments, like those you described, are not an invitation to conversation. I just let them pass without comment. After all, the likelihood of having a fruitful discussion in such cases is very small. On the other hand, sometimes they ARE an invitation to conversation. Then I try to share my worldview clearly, but with humility. On rare occasion, they are obnoxious and overbearing. Then a polite but pointed response seems appropriate.
    The tricky part is deciding at that split second, which is the case. Gotta just go with your instincts, recognizing that they will not be 100% correct.

  • ktappe

    I strongly suggest that you need to change doctors. Not because you and he disagree on religion. It’s because I honestly believe that religion interferes with a person’s ability to think rationally, logically, and completely. These are the very traits that are crucial for a doctor to properly evaluate you and prescribe treatment. Who knows how many possible treatments he is overlooking because he thinks what is happening or will happen is God’s desired path for you? You cannot trust him. I know it took you a long time to get the appointment but for your safety I implore you to go elsewhere.

  • hitch

    My father often told me that two things that I should never mix with business were politics and religion. For the almost 40 years I’ve been in business I’ve found that to be excellent advice. I don’t discuss either with my clients unless: A) They bring it up, and B ) I happen to agree with them. And even then I usually change the subject as soon as it is polite. To do otherwise is not just rude, it is also bad for business. Going on about ones religion, or ones lack of it, would only alienate some people. Several times I’ve stopped doing business with people who have insisted on pushing their beliefs at me–their loss, not mine.

  • bobfairlane

    “I’m not interested” or “I’m here on business” should be enough to get them to cut out the personal chat and stick to their job.