The Sami boy
“I was called to the hospital to meet with a young boy who had made a severe suicide attempt by ingesting toxic substances. He had been treated with activated carbon and was still in the intensive care unit. When I knocked on the door to his room, he was pissed off, angry with everybody, and even though he had technically agreed to talk with me, I had the feeling that our conversation started on an uphill slope. He was not happy to see me. He was one of the Sami people, the indigenous population in Arctic Norway. He spoke Norwegian with an accent, and it was clear this was not his mother tongue. Because I am Swedish, I felt bad about my poor Norwegian. Often my Norwegian is good enough, with a small Scandinavian accent that Norwegian people tend to forgive or occasionally even find charming. My not having Norwegian as a mother tongue, however, would make it harder for him to understand me, and it was pretty obvious he found nothing charming about me. I was ashamed that the town could not bring up a Sami-speaking psychologist in his own land. He really deserved to talk in his mother tongue in this vulnerable situation and being painfully aware of the history of the Norwegian suppression of the indigenous Sami people, I felt like a stupid colonizer coming from the urban world with the imputed “expertise” of assessing his sanity while not even speaking his language. I wanted to acknowledge that and to do something to balance the power relationship between us. And then I made my mistake. I think I was trying to sound very well-informed about the Sami situation and to show off that I knew that Sweden had a Sami population, too. I told him I was Swedish and was sorry not to be a Swedish Sami, so I was not able to speak his mother tongue. I do not know what kind of applause for my cultural sensitivity I was expecting. He looked at me with sarcastic eyes. “That wouldn’t help. There are three different Sami languages. You don’t even know what language the Sami people in your own country speak?” The uphill slope got steeper. I realized I was even worse than the stupid colonizer, and that no quick-witted one-liner could save me from that reality. I could not do anything but apologize for my ignorance. My skinless honesty on how deeply sorry I was resonated in him. The vulnerability of my humiliation and shame balanced the power in an unexpected way. He did not feel pity for me. But he decided to open up. We began to walk up the hill together. »
- What was my mistake? What could I have done differently?
From A Grammar of Power in Psychotherapy: Exploring the Dynamics of Privilege, by M. Fors. Copyright © 2018 by the American Psychological Association.