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Few emotions bring out the worst in us as easily as fear. When that fear is for the health and safety of our children, it becomes even more difficult to manage. However, a recent study from Israel found that we hurt not only other people but those they’ll meet throughout the day when we allow our fear—or the anger that so often accompanies it—to dictate how we treat others.
As Perri Klass of the New York Times describes, researchers wanted to find out how a rude response from parents impacted the care that their children received. To that end, they created an environment where nurses and doctors were tasked with treating a realistic-looking plastic baby while encountering such comments from the “parents.” The actors playing the role of parents were not belligerent, violent, or even overly angry with the doctors. Rather, they simply uttered a snide remark or two, like “I knew we should have gone to a better hospital where they don’t practice Third World medicine,” within earshot of the attending physicians.
While that’s not something a doctor or nurse would take pleasure in hearing, it’s also not the worst thing they’re likely to encounter on any given day. Still, even in this simulated atmosphere, it was enough to negatively affect the doctors’ and nurses’ ability to care for the “patient.”
As Klass describes, “Individual performance and teamwork deteriorated to the point where diagnostic skills, procedural skills and team communication were impaired and medical errors were more likely, compared to control scenarios in which the mother would just say something general about being worried.” That negative effect continued for the rest of the day as well. The only thing that really helped to mitigate it was when a computer game developed to help people with post-traumatic stress disorder was played prior to engaging in the simulation.
And, lest we conclude the results were simply the consequence of thin-skinned hospital workers, it’s worth noting that Israeli culture is not one in which people are prone to keep comments to themselves in order to spare another person. As Dr. Bamberger, who co-authored the study and serves as the associate dean for research at Tel Aviv University’s Coller School of Management, described, “Israelis are not deemed to be the most polite people in the world; they say what’s on their mind . . . The evidence suggests that even in a somewhat rude society, it still has an effect.”
So what does that mean for us? For starters, it demonstrates that we should probably try to be more polite to the nurses the next time we’re in the hospital. While it is completely understandable for parents to be worried about their sick children, and there are undoubtedly situations where the doctors and nurses exacerbate those fears, that’s all the more reason to ask for God’s help in controlling what we say. Sometimes it’s necessary to be firm, or even argue, with those in charge of a family member’s care, but there is always a way to do so that shows the love and grace of our heavenly Father. Those sentiments might not be reciprocated, but, ultimately, the only words we can control are those that come from our mouths.
More than that, however, the study shows that even a single derogatory comment has the power to negatively impact a person’s entire day. Even if they know your comment is born of fear and worry rather than genuine anger or ill will, when we plant a seed of derision in a person’s mind, it’s likely to blossom into something truly harmful.
That’s why the Bible routinely cautions us to be careful with what escapes our mouths. Solomon warned that our tongues possess the power of death and life (Proverbs 18:21) and that “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing” (Proverbs 12:18).
Those passages remind us, however, that when the Bible speaks of our words’ potential negative impact, it hardly ever does so without also describing how they can have the power to bless someone as well. While the Israeli study didn’t address it, I’d like to know what kind of impact a positive interaction with a parent might have had on those suffering the ill effects of the negative comments. My guess is that it would have made a difference in the way they perceived their day going forward.
As Christians, we live in a culture that isn’t always as good at lifting others up as it is tearing them down. Sadly, we contribute to that derision far too often. We could make such a difference in the lives of those around us and for the kingdom if we were known as a people whose speech poured out the love of our savior on all those with whom we come into contact.
And really, we don’t have any excuse to do otherwise. As Jesus said, “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart” (Matthew 15:18) and our hearts should be full of God’s grace and mercy. Is yours?