Reviving the art of conversation

I’ve found that when a thread of conversation has developed, some patients have surprised themselves by realizing they’ve actually had a good time at the dental office. I never cease to be amazed at how well patients can talk through the impedimenta of four-handed dentistry. Editor: So asserts Dr. Matt Dunn DDS, a dentist by vocation, who makes time for such avocations as year-round extreme mountaineering on Saturdays and helping me on the radio most Sundays. Whatever you say, Matt; but personally, I never cease to be amazed at my hygenist's assumption that anyone could possibly reply to her questions with all those freaking impedimenta in their mouth. Dunn wrote this piece, with much obvious relevance to the art of talk radio, in his capacity as editor of the Articulator, magazine of the Metro Denver Dental Society. Here's the article in full:

Sitting in the chair at the barber shop the other morning, wearing a blue smock with a tight neck-band, I noticed my barber and I had to work a little harder at our usual leisurely conversation. We encountered newfound interference, in the form of a television screen blaring forth from the center of the shop.

Raising our voices a notch, we managed to discuss some sports, some politics, some updates on our respective families. Glancing left and right, I noticed most of the other patrons weren’t having too much to say as they absorbed the morning newscast. Scissors were moving, mandibles were not.

It was to be a day of catching up on things – sundry tasks, errands and appointments.

Standing in line at the bank, I counted two TV screens along the pathway towards the tellers, and two others anchored elsewhere across the lobby, all flashing headline news. Again, except for a customer on a cell phone, I didn’t observe anyone actually talking.

Later on, moving through the aisles of a big-box chain store, I noticed I was seldom out of reach of a flat-panel screen transmitting snappy music and promotional messaging.

Then, stepping into a sandwich shop, I had to chuckle over a red-lettered sign that encouraged patrons to get off of their cell phones while ordering their sandwiches.

A routine day in America – a series of banal observations. But threaded together, perhaps they raise the provoking question: What is the state of conversation in America today?

As our lives become more surrounded by the virtual, ever more infiltrated by portable media devices, by endless flat-panels and sound systems, with increasing opportunities to email and text message and generally avoid face-to-face dialogue – are we obliged to count such as social progress?

Moreover, in this sea of virtuality, where does dentistry fit in?

I like to think that dentistry remains one of the last bastions of genuine communication in American life today. No matter how much technology may have changed our lives, the dental office is still a place where people can have real conversations, and where they may find themselves looking forward to them beforehand, and feeling good about them afterwards.

Though we may suffuse our operatories with computer monitors and our reception areas with satellite sound, there is still no getting around the fundamental fact that there must be direct, personal communication with our patients – often over comparatively lengthy periods of time.

Patients cannot multitask their way through an appointment, and neither can we. Meanwhile, there’s no such thing as ersatz dentistry.

I aver that these are good tidings, and that they can make for some of the most rewarding moments in our lives as practitioners. Though the lion’s share of our discussion with patients will tend to be about oral health considerations, there will generally be time left over for free-ranging, open-ended, spontaneous conversation. As we get to know our patients, they get to know us.

When Dick Cavett once asked Jack Paar about the secrets of his successful television talk show, Paar said: “Don’t make it an interview, kid. Make it a conversation.” Paar, the forbear to Johnny Carson, was known to be a great listener and practitioner of the art of conversation.

In days gone by the “art of conversation” formed a part of our educational curricula, and the character attribute of being a “good conversationalist” was regarded as a worthy aspiration. It was assumed that it took some study, that it wasn’t an altogether natural process to arrive at the polished result. It involved the proper blend of give and take, politeness and raillery, humor and empathy.

Though conversation as an art may now be in decline in America – as Stephen Miller persuasively argues in his recent book titled Conversation – we dentists are in a position where conversation must necessarily occupy a portion of our daily activity, and where we may take advantage of what Jonathan Swift called “the greatest, the most lasting, and the most innocent, as well as useful pleasure of life.”

I’ve found that during some of the longer dental procedures, when a thread of conversation has developed and advanced around the treatment room, some patients have surprised themselves by realizing they’ve actually had a good time at the dental office. I never cease to be amazed at how well patients can talk through the impedimenta of four-handed dentistry.

Towards the end of a procedure, when we find we’re still conversing, we may be assured that all has gone well. And we know we can pick up where we left off at the next appointment.

Concerned about the limiting sphere of social interaction in modern society, philosopher Michael Oakeshott has addressed the need “to rescue conversation.” Surrounded as we are by multifarious obstacles to conversation, the dental profession may be partaking in just such an effort.

On whatever fractional scale, as we work to rescue teeth in our daily lives, we may also, without necessarily realizing it, be working to rescue conversation. A healthy enterprise, on many levels – and something that will never become another faceless errand in the American routine.

“To my taste, the most fruitful and natural exercise of our mind is conversation. I find the practice of it the most delightful activity in our lives.” --Michel de Montaigne