human behavior

When talk ain’t cheap

Posted in Australian Culture & Politics, Habits & Manners, Health & Medicine by humanb on October 12, 2010

Ninety percent of the tensions I have with other people stem from my being misunderstood. My meaning is misinterpreted as judgmental when it’s far from it. My declarative American tone in the acoustic world of Aussie upward-inflection doesn’t help. In the end, though, the fault lies with me and my word choices.

My med school has made effective communication a skill of fundamental importance. Over six years, we’re forced to practice our communication skills in speaking and writing, and are regularly assessed on them in everything we do.

I would often question the time spent at school on communication rather than physiology and anatomy. Then I did my Family Practice term and saw the effect of poor communication on the front lines…

The Australian female doctor with whom I worked was prescribing an antibiotic called doxycycline to a girl of Asian descent whose first language wasn’t English. The doctor knew, as all doctors do, that pregnant women should not take doxycycline, as it can cause brown staining of the teeth of the fetus; so the doctor told the girl:

“Now, you can’t get pregnant on doxycycline, hun, okay?”

The girl nodded her understanding and left with her antibiotic.

Some time later, the girl returned to the doctor. Pregnant. Confused and distressed, the girl exclaimed:

But you said I couldn’t get pregnant if I took this drug!


The girl had thought that doxycycline would act as a contraceptive, and so hadn’t bothered with birth control while taking it. It was that timeless error of swapping ‘can not’ for ‘should not’ that caused the confusion. Had the girl been given any number of other drugs which can cause serious fetal malformations, the miscommunication here would have been very expensive, indeed. In this instance, it still cost too much.

The confusion here could’ve just as easily occurred with two native English-speakers if the patient hadn’t sought clarification of the doctor’s meaning.

Unfortunately, we live in a world of lazy communication and shoddy spoken grammar. Because of this, it’s imperative that patients seek clarification from their doctors, coworkers and friends seek clarification from each other, and wives seek clarification from their husbands.

So the next time your husband admires, say, Scarlett Johannson’s, ahem, figure, you shouldn’t rush to conclude that he’s therefore bemoaning that you’re built like a twelve year-old boy. Better to politely ask:

“Don’t be shy, tell me what you really mean.”

More often than not, he meant no more than exactly what he said. They’re not for mincing words, men. Their meaning tends to be pretty clear in fact.

Perhaps we women are the ones with the communication problem.


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