Cultural Elitism

It has been challenging to
reach the people I am trying to serve—average middle
class people of
Michigan; the group I think I am a part of. The majority don’t seem to know anything about acupuncture except that it involves needles. When I meet people for the first
time and tell them what I do, it’s obvious that acupuncture seems really weird and out-there to them. Many simply can’t believe it will work. Sometimes they
become even more puzzled and skeptical when I try to answer their questions
about how it works. I used to get this response occasionally when I lived out
east, but out here in the midwest (Michigan), it seems commonplace. I have noticed more open
mindedness with people who are better educated as well as with people who lean
left politically, than those who lean right. Wealth doesn’t seem to have
as much to do with willingness to try acupuncture. I realize this may seem
elitist to many people, but it is my experience.

Two of my patients seem to illustrate this point: one is a high-school educated
man in his early fifties who walked by the clinic one afternoon and came in to
talk with me about his back pain. He decided to try a treatment, and now he comes
consistently and appreciates the results he is getting.

Another patient who comes
consistently has advanced degrees and seems to get it that acupuncture can help
her, and that it doesn’t matter if we know all the details of how it works. She
also comes consistently and is satisfied with her results.

The ones in the middle,
though, with bachelors level education, are a bunch of tough nuts to crack.
They are biased in favor of western drugs and interventions and very skeptical
of alternative approaches. The argument about acupuncture being thousands of
years old and being used and even preferred by some patients in
China seems to fall on deaf ears much of the time. Trying to distinguish my community-style practice seems less important when you first have to get people to accept acupuncture as legitimate medicine.

I think people may be afraid of being duped. I have also observed—here in the state with
the highest unemployment rate in the nation—that there is a glut of predatory money-making
scams out here. These are pyramid schemes that require you to pay a company up
front for product (make up, health-supplements, juice drinks) or services
(internet travel web sites) that you sell. You can only draw a living wage if
you get other people involved selling crap under you so that you can collect a
commission off their purchase of goods or services from the parasite, er, I
mean, parent company. In this climate, I’m pretty sure some people see me as
just another new-age bullshit artist.

I wonder if it is possible
to reach people in this middle class, middle income,
middle America, or if they are just too biased. Am I wasting my
time trying to tell them about acupuncture? It’s as if the dominant culture has
thoroughly brainwashed them to the point that they are unable to think
critically for themselves.

can’t be the only acupuncturist with this problem. Do you try to educate people
whose minds seem to be made up? How do you deal with the ignorance you encounter? When do
you give up and move on? Do you agree that it is middle Americans that have the
most negative attitudes about trying acupuncture? I think the issue of
education and class as it relates to our practices is relevant and important to

Author: Darlene

<p> I first discovered acupuncture as a very effective treatment for neck pain. Before becoming and acupuncturist, I helped develop continuing medical education materials for MDs. After seeing how research was spun or ignored to serve the pharmaceutical agenda, I decided a career change was in order. I went to PCOM New York and graduated August 2007. During school, I couldn't afford acupuncture except at the school clinic and wondered how I would convince people to pay going rates for my services. Luckily, I found The Remedy in spring of 2006. My CA practice is in Ferndale, MI. </p> <p>   </p>

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  1. “what people love”

    is the title of a book by a dude name Beckwith also check out “selling the invisible”

    Acupuncture is as weird as it is norma

    l”selling” it to people can be tricky as selling a sticky wicket

    trying to educate the “people” about it with words can be too much a task

    “what does acupuncture Do?”

    is our usual cue or our foot in the door(this is your 2 minute elevator speech)

    be clear, concise, honest, enthusiasti

    cand then listen for their next question<<<<<

    I usually say something like:

    Acupuncture mostly relaxes your body on a profound level

    kind of resetting your systems,

    so muscles relax and pain is reduced or if you have shortness of breathit allows you to get a good deep breath….

    simple, useable and it can get you back to them…( they LOOOVE that)

    " is there something specific you were thinking about"I interject with interest

    OR whatever is comfortable to you keeps them comfortable

    forget what you know and share

    remember most importantly that you are selling tickets to a giant neighborhood "custom nap" party

    needle ST9 and PC6 on yourself to boost your gladhandedness, too,

  2. coming your way!

    Hey Darlene,

    This is certainly interesting to me, as I am actually headed to Detroit soon (to be an actual Faculty Wife*, which fulfills my second-greatest life goal, after Eccentric Aunt)!  I was going to try to email you but couldn’t figure out how to do it; but please feel free to email me at grassroots with any relocating advice!  (My sweetie will be teaching at WSU starting this Fall, and you know I’d rather live in her world, than live without her, in mine…)  

    Anyway, I don’t have much input but look forward to our commadre Linda’s view (as well as the other co-mamas and -papas).

    *not “actually” in the sense of “legally,” though we might try to legally marry before we move to one of them states where we are constitutionally outside of the definition.  Puts a whole new spin on the question, Who’s afriad of Virginia Woolf?

  3. Good illumination of the issues as you see them

     Yeah, reaching out beyond people similar to yourself to get them to try acupuncture is hard. I totally agree. Most of us acupunks are highly educated and we have grown accustomed to believing things presented in a certain way.

     But most of the US population doesn’t work that way and we need to reach out to most of the US population in order to be financially viable.  That’s the rub. What to do?

     Here’s one thing from my experience:

     You don’t tap into most if the US population by trying to educate them. In part that’s because their lives are too full, too busy to spend time looking for other explanations on how their body works.  They have other priorities. Thus they won’t spend the time listening to you or me or some other stranger.

    Most of the US population does not rely on education to learn new things. So trying to educate them is sort of like the exact wrong thing to do. So what do you do?  How do you reach them?

      The huge majority of the US population will see an acupuncturist because a) they have some pain that really bothers them that conventional medicine is just not helping all that much and b) because someone they trust said it worked for them. That part B is crucial because most of the US population relies on their close friends and relations for new information. They rely on friends and family because they don’t have time to explore on their own ideas that are totally foreign to them.

     They don’t come because you explain it to them.  You are a stranger and they have no idea if you are a scam artist or what. It’s nothing personal but you aren’t familiar. They want concrete results to convince them to see you and explaining what qi is or that there are these invisible meridians and five elements or whatever is not concrete enough. They want to see results.  Actually showing them results is not concrete enough if by results you are thinking of the results if studies. We have all heard too many times that “3 out of 4 dentists recommend Colgate toothpaste” and similar scams to believe in abstract results. No, the results people want to hear about are what happened to their friends and family members after they saw you.  That’s the only currency that works for most if the US population and you have to learn to trade in that coin to survive.

    The environment we acupunks live in is tough. Acupuncture is weird to all Americans and that includes all acupuncturists too. None of us knows exactly how acupuncture works. In fact when someone does ask me now how acupuncture works I say I don’t know and no one knows. (I usually say, “Beat’s me!” or “Hell if I know!”)  The concepts behind the medicine are at this point just rationalizations in our country and if someone (more likely highly educated as you know) buys those rationalizations that’s because they feel an affinity with the similarly highly educated acupuncturist who is repeating what they heard in school, rather than they are being convinced by you of how acupuncture works. But as you know those highly educated people are not all that common in the US population.

     But that doesn’t mean that most of the US population has a negative attitude toward acupuncture. They are just wary of new things.  Wariness is not the same thing as negative. They are wary because it is entirely outside their comfort zone and most people- educated or not- don’t normally go outside their comfort zone unless someone they trust (family or friend) coaxes them to try something new because they are in such pain and the old ways aren’t helping.

    There is a post in the Philosophy forum, “The Reason To Charge High Prices” that dovetails with what you bring up here, Darlene. What you are asking about here is a crucial issue in making acupuncture commonplace and is one way of explaining why so many acupuncturists fail. But how then do you succeed if not by educating people? The answer is that you need to get bodies into your clinic and once those patients experience acupuncture they will tell their friends and family and so on etc. You just need to start with your friends and family.  Give them free treatments if necessary: just get those bodies in to your clinic.  Give them free treatment cards to give out. There’s a whole lot to say here about getting started that I can’t begin to get into but the point is that people come to you because their friends and family told them it could help.  Referrals should become 95%+ of your patient base.


  4. This has been an ongoing conversation…

    and it made me remember an old post I wrote, “what we did before we had a reputation”:

    This is a response to a post in the Acu Techniques section by Bonny which I inadvertently obliterated. Bonny was asking Skip what he said to patients which encouraged them to try acupuncture, back in the day before we were able to rely on people’s referrals, and before patients came in with confidence in us based on what other patients told them.

    I was thinking about this and I realized that we said the same thing then that we do now, which is not very much. We have never tried very hard to persuade people that acupuncture will work for them. We have confidence that it probably will, but we don’t try to convey that in words. Our goal is not so much to persuade anyone that it will work, but for patients themselves to realize through experience that it works for THEM.

    I think it is important to reiterate that we do not have a magic formula. What we’re talking about is being able to make a connection with a patient or a potential patient that somehow encourages them to give you, and this weird acupuncture thing, a chance. It’s the connection you make that determines whether or not they will give you the chance. Everyone makes that connection a little differently. We don’t have a formula for it; what we do have is a lot of practice in using our personalities to lay the groundwork for what we hope will be a useful, therapeutic relationship. Skip and I have really different personalities, so we do that very differently. He’s very good at teasing patients in a way that they really like, and that gets them to lighten up not only about acupuncture but about whatever problem they came in with.

    I think the key ingredient is something I tried to write about in our little e-book on marketing, and that is genuine enthusiasm both for acupuncture itself and for the prospect of helping someone. We rely primarily on conveying that enthusiasm — we always have and always will.  We try to set that tone right at the beginning by relying on their spirit of adventure and curiosity rather than on what we say about acupuncture. Because in the end, whether they stick with this process long enough to get better is really about them and not about us. If what they really want is a Western-medicine type of experience like drugs or surgery — something fast and intense and about something outside of themselves — acupuncture isn’t for them. They have to have some inclination to trust some process and enter some uncertainty, and that inclination has nothing to do with how we talk about acupuncture; it’s either there or it’s not.

    I think the important thing is not to focus on anyone’s openness to acupuncture, or lack thereof. Focus on your enthusiasm, and trust that it will open doors. If someone is truly unreceptive, or actively annoyed by your enthusiasm (ah, if only I had a dollar for every time someone has been actively annoyed by my enthusiasm…) don’t waste any of your energy, keep moving. Keep your focus on yourself, on being someone whom other people will take a chance on, even if she is some kind of nut — because she is also irresistibly kind and hopeful and high-spirited and in love with what she does. Do whatever it takes to sustain being that person. Ultimately, this isn’t about acupuncture at all, it’s about relationships.





  5. I honestly have no idea of

    I honestly have no idea of what to say, that isn’t my experience.  I actually find people to be as open here as in San Diego which is the only other place I have practiced in.  I have been feeling happy to be here. The people I meet are full of questions and love to tell me their health problems and ask if I can help.  

    I don’t think I do a very good job when I try to explain acupuncture so mostly I just tell people how amazing it is and how much I love it.  

  6. Interesting points

    I think there is a sad but true reality that you have pointed out, which is that so many people are skeptical of both acupuncture and sales scams.  This combination can make it so difficult to get to people who we can help.  Speaking for myself, I can’t say that I have found any particular sect of people more or less apt to be more or less skeptical or interested in acupuncture.  However, a few things popped into my head from my recent experiences that resonate with what you are saying.

    First it was good to see everyone else’s responses.  I think they have had some great advice/thoughts, particularly Skip.

    As was said before, showing people it works by giving them an actual, physical treatment is of course the best route to go to getting people to “believe in” acupuncture, and next is word of mouth of others they know.  Last week I did a health fair for seniors and had this exact type of situation – my booth was set up and ready to go, and for the first half hour I couldn’t talk a single person into trying a free treatment – they all had an excuse (with “I don’t like needles” obviously a big one).   Finally I talked a couple of women into trying it.  As they sat in the chairs, some eyes of skepticism and curiosity of others coming to the table prompted people to sign up also to try it, but still many had trepidation.  Fortunately, one woman was so thrilled that her back felt better that she told all her friends – and then they all came running over, and told their friends, etc.  I had a sign up sheet and a waiting list and took 2 people at a time for 10 minutes, and soon became the busiest table at the fair – non-stop treatments until the very end. And how that happened was by talking just a couple people into it, them opening their mouths to others and it taking off from there.  So just as Skip said before, it’s getting people healthy and happy and asking them to tell others… and it goes on from there.

    One thing that I still can’t believe is how I have actually treated a few people who clearly were skeptical both before AND after their treatment.  One woman in particular enters my mind – she came for shoulder pain, and could hardly move her shoulder before I treated her – once the needles were in, she was able to move it easily – and yet she still was so perplexed and in disbelief that she basically refused to believe it helped her.  These are people we can’t waste our time on – it’s like talking to a wall – sadly.  That’s okay – they have other choices in health care. 

    Even my very loving grandmother has been the biggest skeptic in my personal life. I’ve given her treatments and she experienced relief but still wasn’t so sure; she attended my acupuncture school graduation and heard everyone’s enthusiasm and still thought it seemed strange; she is a very scientifically oriented woman from the school of doctors and drugs.  I think that at my grand opening when she saw people’s positive responses over and over that she finally sensed that acupuncture could actually help people.  But she, like many people, is just a big skeptic… and there’s really very little you can do for these people, in my opinion. 

    One thing that is good is that it’s best to not be pushy w/ sales (which I sense you aren’t, as are most of us CAN’ers)… in other words, I have had several people call my clinic and say “I went to this other acupuncturist before, but he wanted me to commit to 10 treatments up front and pay him for them all, etc…” which, at $60+ a treatment, can seem quite daunting.  Not to say that a person shouldn’t be able to make a commitment to their treatments – but I tell these people that I don’t require them to sign up for any particular amount – I tell them truthfully my suggestion of how frequently I think they should come and for how long, and how we can work with it from there on out – so far, for these people, I have had 100% success with getting them into my clinic and signing up for a follow-up visit, because they know acupuncture works and how it helps, but they don’t feel pressured into buying, and my rates are obviously reasonable.

    Ultimately I think it’s communication and a positive vibe that you send to others that gets them coming to you and coming back.  Obviously it can be challenging and even if you are the best teacher/conversationalist/acupuncturist in the world some people just will never believe you no matter what.

  7. keeping in one’s business

    As Byron Katie put it, ” there are three types of business, your business, their business, and Gods business.”  I just try and keep to my own in this regard.  In other words I think believing in oneself and the work your doing is the most important element, and the one that poeple will feel if it is genuine and sincere.  I agree that it is you that they are attracted to, not even the specific modality.


    Best wishes to your in all your endeavors!


    Michael Victoria, BC “sing’in rooty toot toot for the moon!”

  8. Coming to Michigan!


    You’re going to have to check out  Fashionable, Friendly,  Fabulous Ferndale! It is very close to Detroit and has a very funky, bohemian flavor. The mayor is openly gay, and the city council passed a resolution some time ago to impeach Bush. I love this town! (Tho I’m not so crazy about it’s building department at the moment!) call or email ( when you get here! It will be great to have another acupunk in these here parts!

    Darlene Berger

    Community Health Acupuncture Center

    801 Livernois, Ferndale, MI 48220


  9. Thanks, everybody

    Thanks everyone for your suggestions. Guess I’ve been spending too much time on the hampster wheel…


    Darlene Berger

    Community Health Acupuncture Center

    801 Livernois, Ferndale, MI 48220


  10. People talk to themselves – join the conversation


    We pretty much talk to ourselves all the time. Not just crazy people do this – EVERYONE does. The only difference is for most of us, it’s like a radio playing in the background. We’re constantly thinking about our problems, hopes, fears, wants, whatever. Unless you’re an acupuncturist, you’ll probably never, ever talk to yourself about acupuncture. Ever!

    But if you’re like most acupuncturists, that’s exactly what you’re going to focus on.

    My biggest problem is to get acupuncturists to stop using jargon, stop talking about themselves, and otherwise try to impose their OWN mental conversation on future patients. Cause when you do that, they’re not going to be your future patient – guaranteed.

    So what works?

    Think of conversations people are already having. Here’s some:
    They’re thinking about their pain.
    They don’t trust drugs but don’t see an alternative.
    They’re skeptical of all medicine, not just acupuncture.
    They wonder how the heck sticking needles in a person can possibly do anything positive.

    There’s more. Much more. None of their conversations include chi, energy, stagnation, yin, yang, heat, cold, or other OM jargon. They aren’t talking to themselves about you, they’re not even interested in you until they know that you can help them.

    If practitioners would stop talking about themselves and imposing their own mental conversations, their lives would be so much easier. So ask yourself, or ask your patients, what are their concerns? What are they thinking? Start using their language, and you’ll be surprised.

    It’s like that radio playing in the background – if all of a sudden your name or something you’re very interested in comes up, you’ll suddenly be paying full attention, won’t you?

    Hope this helps.


  11. I think I need to clarify a

    I think I need to clarify a few things. One of the situations I find
    myself in frequently is having an extended conversation with someone
    about acupuncture. This is most often with someone in my LBN (local
    business network) chapter. These are not potential patients, but they
    are supposed to be potential “referral partners”. Part of the way LBN
    works is to have “1-on-1” meetings with people who are interested in
    your business and see a potential for cross-referrals. For example, I
    met with a man who sells supplemental health insurance (Aflac). Yes, I
    had a sit-down with one of satan’s minions. He’s not an actual demon,
    but just a guy trying to make a living in Michigan. These meetings last from 1-2 hours, so there’s
    plenty of time for lots of questions and discussion. There is also an
    opportunity for LBN members to do a 10-minute presentation at a chapter
    meeting. I have also spoken to small groups of people for 30 min to an
    hour about acupuncture. It is in these situations, and not
    conversations with individuals, that I am seeing resistance. Perhaps
    this speaks to the usefulness of groups like LBN, or about speaking to
    groups, or my public speaking skill. When I speak to John Doe, I don’t usually get to a
    how-does-it-work conversation, but in these longer “arranged”
    conversations, I do.

    I joined LBN to try to reach out to a broader group of people, and
    it is very much part of the agenda to educate people about what I do,
    as it is up to others in the group to educate me about what they do. It
    is not supposed to be about selling each others’ stuff to each others’
    clients; it is supposed to be about solving problems for people.

    So even tho it usually makes sense to keep the conversation simple,
    in my defense, I have to say that this particular situation is
    different. Or does everybody think speaking for longer than a minute or
    two is a waste of time??? I thought reaching a larger group was a more
    efficient way to get the word out. Maybe most of you think it isn’t.


    Darlene Berger

    Community Health Acupuncture Center

    801 Livernois, Ferndale, MI 48220