My dad was in the advertising business. He used to write articles in Advertising Age magazine telling his fellow advertising people, “The world is not about advertising. The world is about people.”
When I was young, I didn’t understand why a person would ever have to remind people that the world did not revolve around their humble professional corner of it.
Now as a middle-aged man who runs an association of some of the most obscure workers in the world—professional speechwriters—I do understand why: It’s because grown-ups spend an astonishing amount of our time and intellectual and emotional energy working. As an inevitable psychological consequence, we come to feel that our honorable work must also be underappreciated—by the public, and by our customers.
And what type of professional could be more justified in feeling underappreciated than the dentist, the hygienist, and the others who do hard and difficult and sensitive work that, even when done beautifully, is usually the worst part of every customer’s day?
The temptation must be unrelenting and intense, to remind the customer of how important teeth are—and thus, how important the dentist who repairs and cleans them. Aside from keeping up with advances in dentistry, I would think a good dental worker’s main preoccupation would be remembering: The world is not about teeth and gums, the world is about people.
For more than a decade, I have been going to a particular dentist’s office that is full of people who usually manage to remember that.
Before you sit down, they show you what it’s going to cost—and if you say you can’t afford a part of the procedure and hope to put it off six months, they understand in the same pragmatic way your plumber does.
Your dentist gets to know you—not everything about you, just a couple of aspects of your life (my dentist knows I’m a writer and that I play golf)—and in the course of catching up with you on those things, the dentist reminds you (and perhaps himself) that he understands your world exists outside the dentist’s office, not inside it.
And rather than temporarily wrestling you into his dental-centric worldview, the dentist uses his peculiar place in the world to share insights that sometimes surprise you. “A dental patient is in a really vulnerable position,” my dentist has told me more than once. “Lying on his back with his mouth open.” Sensitive of him to say so. And I once seemed to wound him slightly with the old crack you make to your car mechanic, “I hope I don’t see you for awhile.” The look in his eyes made me never say that again.
So I’ve loved this dentist’s office, whose dentists and hygienists methodically and affordably and lovingly rectified the damage done by a long period of dental negligence on my part, and then maintained their repairs in the years since. I’ve recommended this place to others, and as a result have a number of friends who are also their customers. The business has grown over these years—to 13 chairs, as an X-ray tech proudly told me on my visit the other day.
But on my last few visits, I’ve begun to worry that as the little world of this dentistry grows, the people in charge are losing the perspective that made them special in the first place.
I’ll share that experience here tomorrow, because I think it has something to say—to communicators, and hard and unthanked workers of all kinds.
And I’ll share these pieces with the key players at my dentist, for whatever they are worth to them.