What are the eight most terrifying words a dentist can hear outside of the office?
“So, what do you do for a living?”
Oh boy. Here we go.
The last thing I want to do when I’m trying to make new friends is tell people that I’m a dentist. It’s not even that it’s a conversation killer. Oh, if wishing made it so. Turns out, responding that I’m a dentist is actually a springboard for some of the most awkward and uncomfortable dialogue I’ve ever had the misfortune of partaking in.
Here’s who I usually run into when I go out:
The “Man, I HATE dentists!” Guy
Seriously, how am I expected to respond to this? “Gee, thanks?” Why not skip the conversation altogether and just punch me in the face? At least then I can justifiably excuse myself immediately, rather than feel compelled to stick around to hear WHY this total stranger already hates me.
This person usually goes on to share with me a sob story about a procedure he endured awhile back that was so long, painful, and costly that it left him with a permanent distaste for the entire dental profession. When this happens, I can’t help but feel like I’m expected to apologize for dental care I had nothing to do with, to treat a pre-existing condition I know nothing about, performed by somebody I’ve never met. After all, I wouldn’t want to be RUDE, right?
The “Ooh! Do you treat kids?!?” Lady
Mothers who start salivating when they find out that I’m a dentist scare the bejesus out of me. Nine times out of ten, they need to find a new dentist because their kids were too wild, uncooperative, and non-compliant for the last three offices they’ve been to in the past nine months. I adore children, and I have enough experience and knowledge to treat them safely and effectively when called upon to do so. But the main reason I did not pursue specialty training in pediatric dentistry after graduating from dental school is because I’m not very fond of treating them. I just do my best dentistry on adults, that’s all.
Yet, parents automatically assume that because I am female, friendly, and relatively young, I would be the perfect dentist to break little Junior out of his doctor-biting habit. When I tell them that I don’t see many children in my practice, the combined expression of surprise, disgust, and disappointment on their faces would have you believe that I had just admitted to being a Nazi sympathizer or a proponent of human trafficking.
The Perio Breath Guy
I don’t even need to go into this. Y’all know EXACTLY what I’m talking about.
I’m going to preface my comments about engineers by stating for the record that some of my best and oldest friends are engineers, and that they are ALL extremely talented, highly intelligent, and a joy to be around. They helped me get through physics in undergrad, have resurrected my computers from the blue screen of death, and are responsible for shaping, advancing, and sustaining the world we live in. I am eternally grateful for the contributions they have made to society.
That being said…
Because engineers are such smart, inquisitive, and well-educated individuals, they are ALWAYS the first people to ask me to describe in detail how the TMJ works, comment on findings from a dental-related article in a recent scientific publication, or quiz me on the physical properties of the materials used to fabricate my restorations and appliances. They desperately want to know the most esoteric information about the most intricate things I do, which in many ways, is refreshing and awesome.
Unfortunately, their eager quest for answers usually occurs after I’ve had a rough day, a few drinks, and a meal rich in caloric content. By this point, most of the brain cells that are normally tasked with recalling this information are having a hard enough time working on keeping me upright and awake. The last time an engineer asked me to explain the theory behind occlusal equilibration during a happy hour event, the best response I could come up with was, “Um, yeah, functional occlusion is, like, SO hot right now. SO HOT.”
The “Don’t dentists have really high suicide rates?” Guy
Well, in this very moment, talking to you is making me want to shoot myself, so...
The “How many years is dental hygiene school, anyway?” Guy
Engaging in a conversation with this person usually necessitates a lengthy tutorial on the difference between hygienists and dentists. This then usually leads to an explanation as to why dentists are addressed as “doctor” despite not having attended medical school. Although the reaction to being presented with all of this mind-blowing information is usually one of amazed disbelief and genuine appreciation, this person almost always bids me farewell by saying, “SO nice to meet you! Can I get your card? Maybe you can be my new hygienist!”
The “I’m going to open my mouth RIGHT NOW and I want you to tell me if I really need a root canal on this tooth, okay?” Guy
Why in God’s name do people think this is socially acceptable? We’re at a PARTY. My instruments, equipment, and loupes are MILES away. Not only do I have no desire to look inside anybody’s mouth RIGHT THIS SECOND, but it is absolutely impossible for me to do a dental consultation while standing in someone’s dimly lit living room or in a crowded public place.
To add insult to injury, when I tell them they need to come in for an x-ray and exam before I could say for sure, he gets all, “WHAT DO YOU MEAN YOU CAN’T TELL JUST BY LOOKING AT IT?!?” Of course, I can tell that they’re thinking I’m probably not a very good dentist if I can’t tell right away if he needs a root canal.
The “Why do you charge so much?” Guy
Because we’re all evil, money-hungry crooks who have figured out how to profit from schadenfreude. DUH.
The “So... do you do teeth whitening?” Guy
After a few minutes of asking perfunctory questions about the in-office and take-home whitening systems I offer in my office, this person will inevitably be very disappointed to find out that I do not walk around with free samples of teeth whitening products in my purse to distribute to people I meet at dinner parties.
The “Whoa, you must be CRAZY LOADED then, huh? What’d you make last year? Like four or five hundred thousand?” Guy
One of the things I’ve always found fascinating and concurrently frustrating about being in this profession is that while it is almost universally implicit in American culture that you shouldn’t come right out and ask someone how much money they make, people whom I’ve literally just met often have no problem putting me on the spot and asking detailed questions about my income. Within seconds, all the folks standing within earshot shoot me dirty looks.
The next time this happens, I’m taking a page from the Liam Neeson handbook of dealing with being involuntarily thrust into precarious situations by unpleasant strangers, and responding with:
“I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you’re looking for money, I can tell you that I don’t have a fortune. But what I do have is a particular set of skills. Skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you.”
Yeah, that’ll totally make it easier for me to make new friends.
Diana Nguyen, DDS