The “Ow” of Pain
New research claims that saying “Ow” really can ease the pain.
Why am I skeptical?
Or, rather, why am I skeptical that this works globally?
For one thing, in Côte d’Ivoire, when Beng folks I’ve known slash a finger while chopping wood, or feel the effects of parasites churning in their stomachs, they don’t say “Ow,” they say “Aba” (“Father”)–or, if it really hurts–“Aba-eyyyyyyyy!” (“Daaaaaaaad!”)
But beyond whatever specific words or sounds we might say when we’re in pain, more striking are the cases of people who stringently avoid uttering any sounds, even moaning, when they’re in pain.
That would include many laboring West African women, whose elders teach them that they will bring tremendous shame on themselves and their families if they vocalize pain during childbirth.
Traditionally, Asante women in Ghana were told that going into labor is the feminine version of going to war. Under such training, withstanding pain is not just a matter of personal pride; it’s a cultural necessity. There’s even something about gender parity going on here. In anthropology, the Asante have a reputation for having one of the most gender-egalitarian societies around. Asante queens were fierce political rulers, and kings’ mothers were accorded the highly respected title of Queen Mothers. In 1900, an Asante queen mother, Yaa Asantewaa, led a major military rebellion against the British colonial powers. Down the social hierarchy, ordinary market women continue to be respected by all. Showing vocal restraint in the face of pain during childbirth seems to be part of an overall package of demonstrating power over many arenas, including one’s bodily experience.
And let’s not even talk about the common expectation that girls undergoing genital surgery for ritual reasons in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa must remain silent to demonstrate self control . . . and train themselves to withstand the pain they will undoubtedly experience later, in childbirth.
Gendered expectations about complaining about pain operate in Western societies, too. How many men remember being told, “Buck up/be a man/don’t complain like a girl” from a young age? Later in life, alcohol may offer men a socially acceptable means to cope (quietly) with pain.
I don’t doubt that moaning, screaming, or “Ow-ing” can alleviate pain–in societies that train people to complain about bodily discomfort, as many Western societies train women to do. (I speak from experience here. During the last minutes of my second childbirth, my nurses chided me that I could be heard loudly by their colleagues down the hall.)
But there’s the rub. Our cultural expectations about our most intimate bodily experiences are taught to us from so early on that by the time we’re aware of them, they feel “natural.” And maybe they are–in a culturally shaped way.
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A postscript: A recent NPR piece sensitively explores the hard work of cultural listening required of health professionals who aim to treat people suffering from “depression,” “anxiety,” and other emotional disturbances. What cultural and linguistic forms do such deep-seated experiences take? Three psychiatrists and psychologists profiled in the piece (treating Asian and Asian-American patients) get it.