“But we’re not all like that!” We’ve all said it, haven’t we? Read or heard something that seems to criticise a group we belong to or feel part of and said, “But we’re not all like that!” I know I have. It’s instinctive. Especially so for those working in social care or the NHS, perhaps even more so for those working in mental health which seems to get criticism from every angle. There are many committed, hard-working, professional, compassionate staff who do the best they can in difficult circumstances, make a positive difference to people’s lives and do a really good job.
So when a dedicated GP or mental health occupational therapist hears a story on the news about terrible care in a service elsewhere, he might say, “But not all of us are like that!” A compassionate doctor or psychiatric nurse will read a story about a patient abused in another hospital and say, “We don’t all do that!” A social worker will see a story on a soap about a child being taken from its mother and say, “Not all social workers!” A psychiatrist or mental health healthcare assistant will read a patient describing their experience of poor care and tweet back, “But we’re not all like that!” It’s true: we’re not. But … And there is a but.
What happens when someone – such as a patient who’s had a brutal experience of mental health care or been badly let down by the NHS when she needed help – describes their experience and gets the response, “But we’re not all like that!”? What happens? The conversation stops being about the person who’s describing their own difficult experience and becomes … all about the person who’s interrupted. It becomes all about the interrupter talking about me, me, me.
Now that’s understandable … to an extent. We all have our own experiences and perspectives. We all have our own hot buttons or soft spots. Many working in the mental health field have, I’ve come to learn through twitter, their own personal experience of mental health problems – whether directly or through family members. It really isn’t them and us.
It’s always easiest to see our own perspective. But … there is a time and a place for raising it. When someone is describing their own experience of pain, abuse or neglect it may, I’d suggest, not be the time to butt in defensively and talk about yourself. Sometimes, a sense of perspective is needed. This is well illustrated, it seems to me, with this simple anecdote:
Me: Someone driving a blue Toyota just hit and killed my four year old child.
You: I drive a blue Toyota. Not everyone who drives a blue Toyota hits four year old children.
What does this do? I was talking about having been recently bereaved: you turn the conversation around to … you being a good driver. No doubt that’s true or, if not, you sincerely believe it to be the case, are a conscientious driver and are genuinely offended at any suggestion you might not be. Perhaps there have even recently been stories in the press about bad drivers. But … was I criticising drivers of blue Toyotas? No. Was I criticising drivers? No. Was I criticising you? No. I was talking about the painful personal experience of bereavement.
Or, as mental health researcher Dr Sarah Knowles tweeted:
“I broke my leg :(” “Okay, but not all legs are broken. Why do you generalise? For example my leg is intact.” “I … what?!”
Put like that, it should, I hope, be obvious why the response, “But we’re not like that!” is inappropriate. And how responding or butting in with, “But we’re not all like that!” derails the conversation and belittles the experience of the person describing it.
It’s not about you.
Why do I raise this now? Because the “But we’re not all like that!” argument was raised earlier this evening in a twitter conversation. The conversation did – as these sorts of things so often do on twitter – broaden out to include many other tweeps and move on to other debating gambits, such as victim blaming, “if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen” and the “them and us” culture. Read on for some fascinating insights and well-made points.
As Charlotte Walker (twitter @BipolarBlogger) tweeted:
“If someone has a terrible experience, I am going to honour that experience. There is no point in saying to someone who’s waited 18 months for CBT, ‘Oh don’t be harsh, in other Trusts it’s better.’ No use at all.”
And as NHS doctor Elin Roddy (twitter: @elinlowri) tweeted:
“I always remember you saying – just because you don’t work in a bad service doesn’t mean they don’t exist … It stuck with me and stops me getting too defensive (I hope) when people criticise health care.”
Next time you’re tempted to butt in and say, “But we’re not all like that!”, take a breath, pause and think … Maybe it’s not the right time to interrupt and hijack the conversation. Maybe it’s time, instead, to listen. Maybe it’s not about you. And, next time someone tries to stop you in your tracks with a “But we’re not all like that!”, maybe send them a link to this blog!
- My Storify stories:
- This evening’s twitter conversation
- A continuation of the conversation on twitter (But we’re not all like that – part 2)
- Some twitter comments on the blog piece (But we’re not all like that – part 3) – it’s funny how how much push back I got to a blog piece on being defensive!
- But we’re not all like that (again) – 17th October
- The Racism School website (which I found a hard but illuminating read), where I first read the “blue Toyota” anecdote – HT @stavvers
- The positive effects of social media (mainly twitter!) on my mental health – My Journey Down the Road Less Travelled blog – read more about her here for another insight into why, sometimes, it might be inappropriate to butt in and disagree when someone is describing a painful personal topic – Simply Positive (twitter – @positivesimply)
- Reflections on “But we’re not like that!” – twitter, criticism & PPI – by Dr Sarah Knowles (twitter @dr_know) (19th August) – An excellent example of the learning that can come through engagement on twitter
- Derailing for Dummies – A how-to guide for trivialising and dismissing someone else’s perspective and experience. “After reading this guide, you’ll be able to marginalise anyone!”