I think I gave up on wanting everyone to like me a long time ago.
I’m probably a perfectly likable individual, if you ask most people. I’ve got decent table manners, maintain good personal hygiene practices, and can recite scenes from a wide range of romantic comedies from the late 90s with stunning aplomb. But as a dentist, I’ve learned that most of my patients are primed to hate me before I even have a chance to finish introducing myself.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard a patient say, “No offense, but I really HATE the dentist,” to my face, I could probably pay off the student loans of my entire graduating dental school class. My three-year-old niece is harshly reprimanded by her parents for yelling, “I DON’T LIKE YOU!” at the people she feels uncomfortable being around. Why does my largely grown-up, educated patient pool get away with essentially doing the same thing? I don’t walk into my gynecologist’s office and loudly declare my disdain for what she has to do every year to evaluate my reproductive health. And trust me, I’d much rather see a syringe loaded with septocaine coming towards me than a shiny metal speculum ANY day.
When I first came face-to-face with dentist-hate in my pre-doctoral days, I felt compelled to instantly forge a lasting emotional bond with my patients that I genuinely hoped would change their opinion of me and my profession for good. I apologized profusely when they winced in pain upon injection of local anesthetic. I took it personally when someone complained about the cost of dental treatment or made snide remarks about how my livelihood was sustained at the expense of theirs. I desperately wanted them to understand that I wasn’t the enemy, and if they could just find it in their hearts to look past the white coat, they might just see that I only wanted the best for them. I could be their friend.
Nowadays? I know better. I may still be relatively new to this, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that it is far more important for my patients to respect me than it is for them to like me.
And yet, when I take a close look at the evolution of our profession, it becomes increasingly clear that the practice of being “liked” has become inextricably linked to the practice of dentistry. The advent of social media and the Internet forces us to present ourselves not only as healthcare professionals with enough knowledge and experience to be respected, but also as personalities imbued with just the right amount of character and likability that people feel they need to see in order to believe they’ve made a favorable cerebral connection to us.
Both old and new dentists alike seem to be fully cognizant of the paradigm shift in the dentist-patient relationship. Every time I check my email or go online, I’m bombarded with requests to visit my colleagues’ newly minted Facebook and LinkedIn pages and click “Like” or “Endorse” so the entire universe can have visual confirmation of my support for their career achievements and endeavors.
Yelp reviews and star ratings can, in some instances, make or break a dentist’s reputation. Professional consultants may charge exorbitant fees to help make dental practices more accessible and inviting to new patients. I even saw a CE course in a catalog offering to teach dentists how to use Twitter, promising that the acquisition of a skill mastered by pre-pubescent schoolgirls and most of the “Real Housewives” cast members would convince patients that their dentist was worth investing time and money in because he or she clearly had one steady, gloved finger pressed firmly on the pulse of the new millennium in healthcare.
It’s surreal to watch modern dentists’ professional identities slowly spiraling into some bizarre form of commodity fetishism [somewhere, my college friends are squealing with joy at the inclusion of a Marx reference in an essay about the dental profession] in which society can determine our intrinsic value based on how much we appear to be sought after compared to others of a similar composition.
Is there any way to avoid getting sucked in? [Somewhere, the same group of college friends is now snickering most immaturely.] As a new dentist, do I start bribing friends and businesses to follow me on Twitter to make me appear well-liked and well-connected? Should I create fictitious Yelp accounts to write fake 5-star reviews of myself so my colleagues and patients will believe I’m worth my salt?
Wait. I think I finally made the connection to the “seasoned enough” description.
Or do I keep calm and carry on, without ever worrying if my own level of professional likability isn’t meeting the industry standard? My mildly-seasoned suspicions postulate that the answer inevitably lies somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. I should care enough to ensure that my patients perceive me as a warm and trustworthy professional to whom they can openly express their dental concerns without fear of judgment or condescension, but not care so much about their personal opinions of me that it compromises my ability to provide them with the best care possible.
And that’s not to say that I don’t occasionally wonder about those of you who visit The Daily Grind on a regular basis. I don’t write these entries with the specific goal of appealing to any audience in particular, but I always hope that you’ve enjoyed what I had to say, and that maybe, somehow, I’ve connected to you in some way.
After all, I’m just a girl... standing in front of a blog... asking you to like me.
Diana Nguyen, DDS