Health talk

Posted January 3, 2010 in Canada, Journalism, United States

Wonderful chitchat sprouted from my family visits this holiday season. In one pleasant gab, a thought struck me so hard I almost said something about it.

Conversations tend to orbit around age-old topics: news, weather and health. At Christmas in Quebec, we had plenty of all three. In the process I realized that banter about health proceeds differently in Canada than it does in the United States.

In Canada, we'll talk about cancer, infections, colds, flu and other forms of malaise the way my journalism professors tell me I should write news stories: on-topic, answering obvious questions. For the flu, obvious questions are "was that H1N1?" and "how many sick days did you take?" and for cancer, "will she be all right?" and "did the doctors tell us the odds it'll recur?"

In the United States, however, talk time is squandered on two off-topic questions: "how much will it cost?" and "how are you going to pay for that?"

Example: in Canada, I once had an ear infection and cured it with antibiotics. In the States, I had a concussion that led to a $7,000 hospital bill. I'm not ranting about the $7,000 (today, at least): I'm pointing out that in Canada, my synopsis covers the state of my health rather than the state of my wallet.

In Canada, dentist chats follow American tradition, inspecting price more than teeth. My braces extracted two years of coolness from my youth, but they also pulled two years of financial security from my mother's budget. Cost leaps into discussions about my teeth somewhere after "I wore a headgear some nights" and before "I had to eat through a straw when my braces were tightened every month." This implies the bank account hurt more than my mouth, even though I still have the odd nightmare about tooth pain.

I'm commenting on banter, not bills, budgets or politics. No matter what American health care reforms arrive in the coming months, I doubt most American dinner talk about cancer in the family will shed its monetary overtones anytime soon. But to me, every conversation about life and well-being that sidesteps money is a step closer to utopia.