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The 6Cs flamenco

October 8, 2014

Over nineteen months and ninety-three posts on this blog, I’ve provoked a few reactions – that’s good, it’s what I’m here for. I’ve said things you’ve agreed with; I’ve said things you’ve disagreed with; I’ve made you laugh; I’ve made you think; I’ve given you goosebumps; I’ve got up your noses. When you’ve said I inspired you – I’ve been humbled; when you’ve said I annoyed you – I’ve been bemused. Up to now though, I’ve not said anything like this. Brace yourselves: it’ll be a shock. Are you ready? Here we go: I am not a passionate person. There. I’ve told the world.

I know some of you won’t believe me – some of you might even think I need help. When I reveal my blogging activities to NHS colleagues, a not infrequent response is a visible reaching for the mental panic button followed by hurried assurances that I must be ‘passionate about writing’. For two reasons, I always deny it. Firstly, because it’s a way of neutralising me: by reducing me to a quick three-word description that’s congruent with popular cliché, it conveniently deals with perceived threat. I can almost feel myself being bundled into a box labelled ‘passionate about writing’ and parked on the shelf next to someone who’s ‘passionate about politics’. From time to time, a guard might return and, nervously opening the lid a crack or two, check for funny smells. But also – and this is my more important point – writing does not, to me at least, feel like a passionate activity.

Passion is a word I see as inextricably linked to emotion. When I speak it aloud, it opens up a vision of flamenco dancers, expressing through movement and music something so deep, so primordial that mere words cannot reach down far enough to name it. So although I know it’s wrong – I do, really – whenever I hear a nurse say they’re passionate about compassion, 6Cs and all the rest of it, what I see is Jeremy Hunt with a Spanish guitar on his knee and Jane Cummings got up as an Andalusian gypsy. Writing, by contrast, is an intensely cerebral pastime. Even when I’m at my very rantiest (‘A hospital is a safe environment? Are you kidding me?…It’s full of germs and people die every day!”) it’s still, crucially, about control: about finding the right word, and locking it into the correct rhythm.

Yet the appeal of flamenco also lies in what it has to say about control. What captivates us as an audience is the paradox of wild and potentially destructive emotion contained by the precision and discipline of intricate dance steps. Nursing has parallels with this. In her seminal work of 1992, The Emotional Labour of Nursing, Pam Smith wrote about the psychological work nurses have to perform on themselves in order to manage the strong feelings inevitably stirred up by their working lives, and preserve, for the sake of the patients, an outward equanimity. Nurses inhabit a highly impassioned world, but at the same time have been ordered to suppress the way they feel about it. So what’s changed? Why have we suddenly started talking about passion in a major way? And what are we really saying?

Much of the recent er…passion for passion is just fad of course. The BBC (thank you @CarolineDNS1990) put ‘passion’ at Number Three in its list of ’20 of 2013’s most overused words’ and quoted the Consultant Editor at Collins Language as saying that ‘people tend to use [it] to try to impress, or make things seem exciting’. What does seem to be true is the place where the word is trundled out most frequently for a bit of abuse and over-use is the work environment – any kind of work environment. So over at (‘become a better man’), the rundown of ‘the ten best moves you can make to convey the right sort of passion in the workplace’ includes (at Number Five) ‘Stay Late’. ‘Make it a habit to stay late each day’ it breezes. ‘Even if you’re only staying 15 minutes, you’ll literally be among the last to leave for the day’.

A great strategy, I think you’ll agree, when you’ve got to pick up the kids from the child minder’s by four o’clock or get charged an extra hour. What seems to be happening here is that a recognition that some workplace environments have historically been ‘too masculine’ has resulted in the adoption of ‘passion’ as an acceptable (for which read ‘man-friendly’) emotional counterpoint. But nursing has always been ‘passionate’, and, as Smith pointed out back in 1992, it’s a situation that has traditionally been neither recognised nor recompensed. To this day, nothing has changed: at the same time as nurses are constantly enjoined to ‘show more compassion’ and work under greater and greater pressures, they are subjected to a years-long pay freeze.

The new irony is that passion (in its original sense of ‘suffering’ from the Latin root ‘passio’), concealed, suppressed and barely worthy of comment when applied to nursing, has been re-packaged for the male market as something that should both get you noticed and improve your pay and prospects. You couldn’t make it up. And heaping irony upon irony, nursing has bought it all back – lock, stock and barrel and complete with the thrusting, competitive and (distastefully inappropriate to nursing) babe-magnet overtones the concept acquired while it was out in the big wide world. So now you’re no one if you don’t have a veritable passion for pressure sore prevention, patient safely, infection control, wound management, continence care – you name it. At a time when we should be standing together, we’re engaging in a pissing contest (thank you @BunzBird).

I’m not saying, of course, that there is anything wrong with any of these specialisms. As I made clear in my blog last week, nursing should be encouraging everyone to discover their interests and enthusiasms and develop them in a positive way. But before we rush headlong into the glamorous trappings of other people’s working lives, let’s not blind ourselves to the injustices at the heart of our own. We shouldn’t have to stay late. We shouldn’t have to ‘talk about work’ (‘It’s amazing how many people never talk about work when they don’t have to’ –’s helpful hint Number Four). What we need is recognition for the amazing things nurses do already.

Pam Smith (1992); The Emotional Labour of Nursing; Basingstoke; MacMillan.

For the site see:

  1. junegirvin permalink

    Excellent stuff, Stella. Thought provoking, a neat angle, and beautifully written as always.

  2. Thanks June 🙂

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