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Be careful what you say

By RDH, MPH

By the time we enter junior high, we've all heard the phrase, "Be careful what you say." Traditional social norms used to set standards on behavior. These guidelines clearly delineated the lines that should not be crossed. Lest you think I'm just an old fuddy-duddy (ancient term for being out of touch), rest assured, I grew up during a period of great social upheaval. Daily news was filled with accounts of the Vietnam war, the Civil Rights Movement, the War on Poverty, and the United Farm Workers' protests over migrant workers' agricultural wages and benefits.

Baby boomers were not a content lot. In the sixties and seventies we knew how to gripe, and we understood protests. We wanted change, and we wanted it now. Boomers were the last pre-Internet generation and despite our rhetoric, we still had a smidgen of respect for authority. We understood hard work was the pathway to progress, and if prosperity was the end result, so much the better, but we did not feel entitled.

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Today's technological advances facilitate communication at a speed never anticipated two decades ago. In 1998, an NPR program discussed a new communication platform. I clearly remember driving north on US 59 past Memorial Southwest Hospital listening to how email would impinge upon and transform our lives. The person being interviewed worried about the instant on-demand nature of email, the inability to get away from constant social demands and noise, and not having time to craft a well-thought-out response. His angst was clear. New communication tools rewrote the rules. The carefully crafted sentence, penned in ink on gorgeous paper, became a scarce commodity. I still wonder if that person survived the communication shift. And to this day, it is a thrill to receive a personal communication crafted the old fashioned way -- paper, pen, ink, and a stamp.

Baby boomers grew up talking face-to-face, chatting on the phone, and writing letters and notes. Gen X and Gen Y grew up with technology. They learned to speak as they learned to type. While today's communication tools are efficient and readily accessible, there are very inherent dangers, especially if one does not install a serious social filter before hitting the send button. Email, texting, and acronyms speed up the transfer of thoughts, but these shortcuts can actually slow down communication or create huge communication debacles.

Social scientists suggest only a small part of communication comes from words, yet we all rely on electronic platforms to convey ideas and emotions. Unless one has a very close relationship with the recipient of the communication, words are flat. It is really easy to misunderstand the context and intent. There are no facial features, no voice inflections, no body language. There are just words. Eyeball-to-eyeball contact allows us to add gut radar to the interaction to ferret out the phonies.

So why write a column about online communications? Every time you type a comment via Facebook or another chat site, the world has a chance to hear your thoughts. YouTube videos go viral. Emails can be altered or forwarded. Online communications are not private, even if a group requires membership. Poorly thought-out posts, mean-spirited remarks, and unjustified accusations have no place in our professional world.

Dental hygiene practice is demanding and frustrating at times, but openly criticizing a patient, coworker, or employer is not a professional approach to solving problems. What we say in cyberspace is easy to view, and remarks can be taken out of context. Most people like the ease of communication afforded by social media platforms, but comments or photos have the potential to ruin people's careers and lives if not handled in a responsible, professional fashion. Where are the boundaries? Is it professional to make fun of patients, bash a coworker, or question a diagnostic decision, especially one that is recorded in a chart? Consider the legal ramifications for posting incident-specific details.

Cyberspace is a great place to learn about new technology, share clinical ideas, and to reduce professional stress. Online information exchanges can be exciting and reinforce our professional comfort zones. Unless you personally know all of the readers, resist the temptation to air all of the details in front of a group. Don't let a remark made by another member put you on the defensive. Instead of elevating dental hygiene, fighting on web-based forums demeans our profession.

Take time to craft a careful, thoughtful message or query that you would be proud to read 10 years from now. Strive to add content that provides clinical information, improves patient care, or clinician well-being. Share scientific information about disease processes and products that may be useful. Use these communication platforms to move your career and our profession forward using constructive ideas and solutions in creative ways. Bottom line -- we are here to serve patients. It is our professional obligation. If your current dental practice does not match your philosophical and ethical principles, do your best to move on. In the meantime, take care of the patients as best as you can. 

Take time to craft a careful, thoughtful message or query that you would be proud to read 10 years from now.

ANNE NUGENT GUIGNON, RDH, MPH, provides popular programs, including topics on biofilms, power driven scaling, ergonomics, hypersensitivity, and remineralization. Recipient of the 2004 Mentor of the Year Award and the 2009 ADHA Irene Newman Award, Anne has practiced clinical dental hygiene in Houston since 1971.

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