Back when I studied Medical Anthropology at Smith, one of the jokes we loved repeating at cocktail parties was the one about the applied anthropologist who went to Africa on a mission to cure diarrhea. He had lots of training, the best of intentions, and state-of-the-art equipment and medicine.
Prior to launching his campaign, he asked the village elders to gather the community for an introduction to the project. At the gathering of the tribe, the anthropologist drew a picture of the village, the water sources, and used a large, plastic 3-D fly model to illustrate how water is contaminated.
The villagers listened intently and understood the tone of urgency in the anthropologist's presentation. Then, at the close of the meeting, a wise elder spoke up with concern. He said, "I understand this dangerous problem. You must remedy it. It is a good thing that we do not have such big flies here." ...
I love this anecdote because it illustrates the extent to which how we talk about what makes us sick (and what makes us healthy) is 100% culturally bound. Without a bridge between a gifted doctor's clinical gaze and a patient's humble testimony, much meaningful, curative potential is squandered. Stories matter.
Read e-patient's A thousand points of pain