In addition to a daily yoga class, dental schools should really look into adding a class on small talk to their curricula. This would prepare someone like me to speak when I don’t necessarily have anything to say. When your profession requires you to interact face-to-face with nervous humans on a regular basis though, this skill becomes quite important.
I never have been one to use extra words or to draw out a conversation. Part of this comes from being an introvert, but it is also how I was raised. My Eastern European heritage tends to avoid unnecessary banter and disingenuous smiles at strangers. I like to keep the chitchat to a minimum and get on with my day. I am constantly surprised at how many adults will happily slip into a long conversation with you in the middle of the work day. Perhaps my patients are just trying to avoid returning to their offices—while I am trying to move on to my next patient.
Prior to a procedure, I usually have a lot to say, just talking about the dentistry being done and answering any type of questions the patient may have. I take photos of their teeth, to which patients usually show an immense curiosity or cringe with horror. Nevertheless, prior to a procedure, there always are plenty of things to discuss.
The times in which I am usually at a loss for words are at recall exams. On these occasions, things are usually going pretty smoothly; my hygienist tells me that the patient looks great, and there’s nothing new to report. My job is to come in and do my exam, which is usually quick if there is nothing new of note. However, I likely have not seen this patient in six months or longer, so I feel like I need to spend a few light minutes in small talk—to break the ice and hopefully even put a smile on the patient’s face before sending him or her off to the front desk to schedule the next recall visit.
For conversation starters, I have a few frequently used topics that I will share with you, and I hope you will share some of yours in the comments below.
Children: If a patient has kids, he or she will instantly light up when you inquire about them. Now being a parent myself, I totally get it. This is really the only conversation topic that I will ever have a hard time cutting short—even if I am having a busy day. Also, if a new patient mentions to me that he or she has children, I usually make a note of it in the chart so I will remember to ask how the kids are doing during future visits.
Compliments: I look for something that the patient clearly spent some thought and time on. It could be a unique bracelet or cool shoes. As someone who enjoys shopping myself, I appreciate when my efforts are rewarded with a compliment.
Food: Who doesn’t like to talk about food? I had a patient complaining about how chia seeds kept getting stuck in his teeth, which led to a conversation about how chia is becoming a trendy health food. Ask if your patient has had lunch yet, or if he or she can recommend a good place to go to in the area. Favorite foods and recipes will get anyone talking.
The holidays: The holidays have passed, but they were recent enough to still entice conversation. Ask patients how they spent their time or about any great gifts they received.
Happy New Year and I hope you all had a great holiday season! Now let me know what gets your patients talking!
Lilya Horowitz, DDS