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Grunt Once for Yes

Dentist (c) Naomi Karten

Think root canal. What a wonderful opportunity to help put my dentistís kids through college. And also to speculate on the Art of the One-Way Dialogue.

First my dentist pumped me full of anesthetic. Then he filled my mouth with all manner of dental hardware. Explaining that the offending tooth was a tough one to reach, he had me crank my head around to an angle not designed for human cranking. And then he told me I was not to move. Keep completely still, he said, and donít try to say anything.

As he began to work his dental wonders, he did what I believe is a prerequisite for his profession. He started talking. And periodically, despite the fact that I was incapable of articulating a single simple syllable, he asked me questions.

It would have been bad enough if his questions merely required a yes or no answer. I mean, you try it. Open your mouth as wide as you can, tilt your head at whatever angle hurts the most, and then while pretending youíre anesthetized, try saying "yes." Then "no."

See what I mean? All you can do is grunt. And a yes grunt sounds much like a no grunt.

Not that he limited himself to yes/no questions. I could swear he seemed to favor questions that required the use of mís, pís, fís and bís. But all I could do was give him an answer grunt, which was indistinguishable from the yes grunt and the no grunt.

Periodically, he asked me if I had any questions. Yes, I thought: Why do you keep asking me questions when I canít answer them? I tried to answer "yes" grunt, but he misunderstood and thought I said "no" grunt.

In defense of my dentist, I should point out that at the end of my first visit, he explained in detail what he had done and what he would do next. His explanation came complete with pictures that he drew for me. Most were pictures of teeth, but one was a picture of a nutcracker, which he used to illustrate the different amounts of pressure needed to chomp down on something, and how this can result in damage to teeth ó and maybe to nutcrackers, as well, though he didnít say.

On my second visit ó the one in which we put his second born through her freshman year ó he again made me grunt-ready and was quickly off and yakking. Giving him the benefit of the doubt (and being too cowardly to stifle the mutterings of anyone in mid-root canal when itís my root thatís being canaled), I told myself he was just trying to be amiable and help me pass the (not overly enjoyable) time.

His technique, though, reminded me of sales and service people who are so busy responding to their customersí needs that they never stop talking long enough to understand what those needs are. You know the people I mean: The ones who ask questions and then ignore the customersí responses. The one who assume they know the answers before theyíve heard them. The ones who provide little or no time for their customers to ask them questions.

And my favorites: the ones who are so eager to solve their customersí problems that they ignore their customers altogether.

My dentistís daughter wanted to spend her junior year abroad, so he invited me back for a third visit. He dosed me with anesthetic, loaded me up with the usual dental paraphernalia, and then asked, "So how are you going to spend the holidays?"

I may someday invite him to one of my customer service classes as Exhibit A.

Text and graphics copyright © 2009 Karten Associates. +1-781-986-8148, www.nkarten.com

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Karten Associates
Randolph, Mass., USA
Phone: +1-781-986-8148
Fax: +1-781-394-0530