That 'hygienist-y' look

"See that man at the table to your left?" I whispered to my husband as we ate dinner at a restaurant. "He's a dentist."

by Kirsten Brancheau

"See that man at the table to your left?" I whispered to my husband as we ate dinner at a restaurant. "He's a dentist."

My husband glanced over to the next table and asked, "Do you know him?"

"No," I replied. "He just looks like a dentist."

My husband rolled his eyes and went back to eating his stuffed mushrooms. Clearly, he does not believe in my psychic ability to detect a dentist in a crowd. But I have proof of my amazing talent.

Many years ago, I worked in an office with Ken, a dental technician who also had "the gift." We were visiting a zoo one day, watching the animals as well as the humans.

"See that man over there by the rhinoceros? He's a dentist," I said. Ken looked over at the man who was standing with his young son.

"He sure looks like one," Ken agreed.

As we walked closer to the man, we heard him explaining to his son how the rhino's teeth were perfect for its type of diet.

"Are you a dentist?" I asked, as Ken quickly walked away from me.

The man turned toward me, startled. "Yes," he replied. "Uh ... do I know you?"

"No," I replied. "It's just that you look like a dentist. I'm a hygienist."

Now, wouldn't you think that that dentist would have been so impressed with my amazing intuitive powers that he would have offered me a job right then and there? Instead, he looked at me kind of funny, quickly picked up his son, and left.

"I told you he was a dentist," I said as Ken cautiously returned. "And not a very friendly one."

I'll admit that's the only time I actually proved my ability to detect a dentist in a crowd. But I have shared this story with dental assistants and other hygienists, and many of them believe they also have the gift. It's not that dentists all look alike. They come in many shapes, colors, and sizes. But there's something ... well ... "dentist-y" about them. Maybe it's some kind of aura. Maybe it's a faint "dentist office smell" that subtly clings to them and transmits to those around them.

A thought came to me recently that maybe there are people who can detect hygienists in a crowd. When I first started dating Blais, my husband-to-be, he introduced me to his friend, Terry. After we exchanged our "hellos" Terry said, "You look like a dental hygienist." I was taken aback. Obviously, Blais had told Terry that I was a hygienist. But I didn't know that hygienists had a "look," and I wasn't sure I would like that look.

I tentatively asked Terry, "What exactly does a hygienist look like?"

"Oh, you know — clean, cheerful, healthy." Well, I could live with that.

What should a dental hygienist look like? What are the special qualities that tell the world, "I am a dental hygienist"? I decided to do some scientific research and find out.

First, I asked the women on my tennis league to write down three adjectives or descriptive phrases that came to mind when they heard the words "dental hygienist." Nobody knew I was a hygienist. I wanted honesty and I was afraid they would soften their answers if they knew. However, these are women who slam a tennis ball within a millimeter of your face, score the point, and then say sweetly, "Oh, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to do that." Unfortunately, one of the women asked, "Are you a hygienist?" and I had to tell them. Well, I needn't have worried that they would sugarcoat their answers. Their responses included terrorist, scary, lecturing, picky, different breed, compulsive, and unimaginative. One woman searching for the right word asked, "What's the word that describes 'Marathon Man'?" "Sadistic?" I suggested. "Yes, that's it. Write that down." Cutthroat bunch of ladies.

I decided that this was an atypical group of people and I needed a different sample. I asked my teenage daughter to Instant Message her friends with the question, "What comes to mind when you hear the words 'dental hygienist'?" Their answers included clean, smart, articulate, concise, weird, talkative, cynical, annoying, stupid, and tooth-obsessed. Not a whole lot better than my tennis league.

Frankly, I'm puzzled by these reactions. Perhaps my ego needs some adjustment, but I've always thought most of my patients liked me. Perhaps they don't enjoy what I am doing in their mouths, but I thought they liked me as a person. I get the occasional, "I hate dentists" comment as I bring a patient into my operatory. Odd that they always say they hate dentists, but not dental hygienists. I reply, "Well, it's a good thing I'm not a dentist. I'm a hygienist."

Most of the hygienists I know are pleasant people. So why do we have such a bad reputation? That's a question I can't answer. But until I know, I hope I don't find myself in a dark alley with someone who has the psychic ability to detect hygienists.

Kirsten Brancheau, RDH, practices clinical dental hygiene in Randolph, N.J. She obtained her associate's degree in dental hygiene in 1977 and her bachelor's degree in English literature in 1988. She can be contacted at ahgi@juno.com.

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