An ancient maxim of dinner party etiquette, which I believe has been proffered from more than one source, is “never discuss politics, religion or sex in polite company”. In some ways, for me as a physician, entering the exam room with a patient seems to require some similar degree of discretion. But the consequences of straying outside the bounds of polite discussion in the doctor’s exam room are quite different from any awkwardness that might ensue after a social misadventure.
Dr. Henry Lee, the well-known Connecticut State forensic medicine expert likes to relate a tale of his own introduction to dinner party etiquette, which I will try to relay somewhat faithfully. His English was poor when he arrived in the U.S. and, invited to a party in which guests were seated in the traditional “boy-girl-boy-girl” arrangement, he knew he would be pressed to make conversation with the women on each side of him. A friend reassured him, “You’ll have no problem if you can just get the woman talking about herself and then all you have to do is listen politely. Simply ask ‘Are you married?’ and then ask “Do you have any children?’. This should get things going just fine.” Armed with this strategem, Dr. Lee was seated and turned to an attractive young woman on his left and asked if she was married. She replied “No”. So of course, he went on to the next question, “Do you have any children?”. He was surprised when she reacted with a look of indignation and quickly turned her attention to the guest on her other side. Puzzled at her reaction, he surmised that he must have gotten the sequence out of order. Trying out the other way around, he turned to an older woman on his right and asked confidently if she had any children. “Three!”, she replied happily. Delighted with his progress, he then inquired if she was married. Dr. Lee says he spent the dinner conversing with his soup and salad.
I have also had exam room encounters come to grief because of sex, politics and religion, but nothing has caused me more regret than politics. I will explain.