A way with words: How language makes a difference

By | March 16, 2018

There’s this phenomenon in the local restaurant scene that has caught my attention recently. I’m not sure if it’s always been this way, and I’ve just never noticed, or if it’s a product of a new generation of cooks and restaurant owners.

Dr. Vaughn

What I’m talking about specifically is the menu language. The use of adjectives and word esthetics to sell the item to me. Seattle is particularly huge on this. It’s everywhere. It’s as if every restaurant has a Menu Poet on staff to come in and “write the menus” to appeal to our city’s growing Millennial population. I’m sure you’ve seen it to. My menu at brunch this morning read something like this:

The Rooster

Free-range crispy buttermilk chicken, fresh baby arugula, aged Tillamook cheddar, topped with Mill Creek Farm’s fluffed egg and seven-oat honey wheat

Sounds delicious, right? With every ingredient, I just got hungrier thinking about that beautiful thing arriving to my table. And you better believe it’s going on my Instagram story. What’s interesting to me is that the reason it’s such an appealing sandwich is because of the way it’s described. There are no pictures, just words. The chef is relying on the menu to do all the talking, to get you to put your trust in the restaurant that this dish is going to be just as delicious as it sounds. What if the menu read like this:

Chicken Sandwich

comes with arugula, cheese, and an egg on top.

“Hmm, what else is on the menu?”

Right? It’s the exact same sandwich! The only difference is the language used in presenting it to the customer. It really does make a difference in not only how we see the menu, but the overall experience of dining, from opening the door to paying the bill.

Which honestly translates to dentistry quite well. Patients know very little about dental diagnosis and treatment planning. Whether they understand their oral condition or not, and thus whether they accept our recommendation for treatment, is completely up to us and the language that we use.

For many of us, our first inclination with something we don’t fully understand is to dismiss it. I have been guilty of this when it comes to automotive mechanics. I take my car to get the oil changed or a headlight bulb replaced, and they will inevitably find something else that needs to be fixed. And I usually say no. Why? Because the conversation usually goes something like,

“Hey we noticed your whatchamacallit is low, you want us to replace it?”

“Oh, how much is that going to cost?”


“Uh no thanks, not today.”

And that’s it! No explanation of what it means to have a low whachamacallit or what it might do to my car if I don’t fix it. Why would I buy into a half-hearted ill-explained recommendation to fix something I don’t even understand?

Our language and interactions and word choice is very much a developed skill, and I imagine it will take me and you a long time and a lot of practice to completely master it. But it’s worth that training. It’s worth that effort. Not only for the success of our practices but for the well-being of our patients. Because I hope we believe in the work we are doing and the recommendations we are giving.

I once heard another doctor explaining why a patient’s tooth was hurting. But this doctor said something to the effect of “so what you have is called ‘irreversible pulpitis’ and so your options for the tooth are either to have it pulled or to do a root canal.” But there was no further explanation of what any of that meant. And what made it worse was that this patient did not speak English, and so a video interpreting service relayed all of this information to the patient, who I can imagine was a bit confused.

Let’s get better with our language. Work on it everyday. Explain and recommend treatment in a way that makes our patients feel good about their experience and the decisions that they’re making. Because sometimes the only difference in what makes up the accepted treatment plan is the way it was explained and how confident you made the patient feel in their decision making.

Dr. Joe Vaughn is a New Dentist Now guest blogger and a member of the American Dental Association. He grew up in Alabama and recently graduated from The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Dentistry in 2015. He now lives in Seattle, Washington, and works at Neighborcare Health, a community health center in Seattle. Two cups of coffee, writing and indie music are everyday occurrences for Joe. Go Seahawks and Roll Tide!


4 thoughts on “A way with words: How language makes a difference

  1. Shiv

    Banggg onn!! This has helped so many times, my two cents – speaking to people in a similar way,(tone, speed, similar words) they may have used etc is also going to help them understand things better and get a better feel of the decision making process.

  2. Theresa Moore

    Just loved this post! This is why I follow Ada, it always provides good stuff.


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