I had an experience the other day at work that really got me thinking. Then I listened to two podcasts that really set my mind spinning. The first was an episode of “This American Life” called ‘Got You Pegged’ and it was about the judgements and assumptions we make that are often wrong, but sometimes necessary. The other podcast was “On Point” with Tom Ashbrook and it was an interview with Richard Todd who has done a great deal of study and writing about authenticity. But first, here was my “foot in the mouth” experience.
I guess everyone does this, we do it all the time, but at work when my patient walks into my operatory I make immediate assumptions. It is almost sub-conscious, the way I surmise and conclude based on appearance and a couple minutes of small talk. Then I get on with my work; taking radiographs, cleaning teeth, educating the patient, etc. Well at the end of this particular appointment we were chatting while we waited for the dentist to come in for the exam.
Me: Where do you work?
Patient: St. Al’s. (Hospital)
Me: Oh? Are you a nurse? Receptionist?
Patient: No, actually I am a physician.
So most of you are laughing at me and thinking I was out of line to lead the questions in that direction, but hindsight is 20/20 and she did not strike me as the doctoral type. (Obviously.) I apologized and she was very gracious. It was probably quickly forgotten by her, but all of the sudden the last 53 minutes rolled through my mind and I realized I would have done things very differently if I had known she was educated, experienced, and… well… intelligent. For example, part of the appointment involved measuring the depth of the gingival sulcus around the teeth to see if there is a loss of periodontal attachment. Although I could have used those words with her, that isn’t usually the way I explain things to people, I try to simplify. “I’m measuring the gums around your teeth to see if there are any ‘pockets’.” My point is, here was a woman with a far superior knowledge of human anatomy than mine, and I was over-simplifying based on my poor assumptions about the level of her understanding.
What made this so disappointing to me was that I explain oral health in different ways to different people. I suppose I sometimes oversimplify or don’t simplify enough, but this time I had her pegged for someone on the complete opposite end of the spectrum. I really dumbed it down. So how did I go so wrong? Am I that bad of a judge? Why do I have to judge in the first place? I guess the bottom line is that I need to ask more questions at the beginning to make a more sound judgement. But boy did I feel foolish. I felt like I need to work on treating everyone the same, but it’s not exactly that simple.