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...we must reinforce our belief that it is desirable to be vocal. It is not only for personal gain or glory but also it’s part of our contribution to society. 


One of the characteristic that distinguishes us from other living creatures is that we humans talk a lot more. Indeed some of us are so talkative that we are unable to keep our mouths shut despite knowing beforehand that our utterances are likely to land us in hot soup.

In comparison, lower life forms are relatively quiet. Other than during eating, fighting, dating, mating, migrating or electing a leader, when some noise may be produced now and then, most would choose to remain discreet and be diplomatically silent. Since they are lowly and therefore more vulnerable, it is a wise move on their part. Opening their mouths could seriously damage their health, for they would then reveal themselves to the enemy and attract predators. But for humans, it appears that being vocal is an integral part of our nature, and we commence as soon as we emerge from our mothers’ wombs and upon given the customary whack on the bottom.

It could be that during the evolutionary process humans have developed a highly sensitive Broca’s area, whose neurons have become so hyperactive, that they are constantly discharging, urging the specie to think aloud and to express itself. Modern man therefore devotes a Iot of his energy praising, irritating, scolding, lecturing, criticising, insulting, accusing, making promises and brainwashing one another.

However, the type, frequency, quality and ferocity of our actions depends on our subsequent development as well, for example, the status we achieved and experience we  acquired later in life. These vary from person to person, consequently not all of us are equally fluent in the activities mentioned, though we possess the same basic instinct. 

Doctors, for example, rank quite poorly when it comes to expressing themselves. The medical profession, in spite of having advanced by leaps and bounds in many areas, is backward when compared to others in this aspect. Unlike politicians, religious leaders, insurance agents, second-hand car dealers and durian vendors, all of whom have attained a certain standard, most doctors are not quite up to the mark. The only consistent performer I can think of presently is Dr Lee Siew Choh.

The extent of this malaise is further illustrated by the paucity of comments from the doctors and their so-called leaders even when critical matters such as advertising and third party health care management were raised. These are bread and butter issues. One wonders why there are so few opinions from so few doctors. This stupor, impassiveness or indifference, however one likes to describe it, requires an explanation.

The root cause, I believe, can be traced back to our formative and trainee years. As far as I can remember, little was done in our medical school to teach or encourage students to talk and there was hardly time to talk when we began work in the hospitals after we graduated. Even when there were opportunities, most of us were reluctant to open our mouths for many of our superiors seemed unapproachable and worse, they appeared to be unforgiving when told the wrong or unpleasant things. The majority ended up minding their own business, working silently and unobtrusively. The few talkative ones were probably either show-offs or psychopaths.

Furthermore, some of the disciplines that our doctors specialised in provide little or no training for sharpening verbal skills. A pathologist doesn’t get much speech practice from dissecting cadavers, an anaesthetist from putting people to sleep and a microbiologist from gazing at microbes.

One other significant reason is that life has been comfortable for the doctors so far. Seriously then, what is there that is so serious that we need to talk seriously about?

The above factors have led to a lack of verbal exercise and is reflected in the decline in standard and confidence. Has anyone heard a good speech, a classy story or a really funny joke from a doctor lately? This trend if not arrested could lead to the development of a vicious cycle. In time to come doctors will become even more tongue tied because of the suppression of our natural instinct which is contrary to modern evolutionary trend.
But society has changed. Doctors cannot afford to remain like this anymore. In an elitist environment, the quiet ones are often taken to be timid, ignorant, lacking in drive and spirit. We pay attention mainly to those who can talk. Speechlessness is worse than thoughtlessness. It is clear that those who are not inhibited are by far the more successful and prosperous ones.

Doctors therefore have to use their vocal cords in order not to lose out. Nature, as mentioned earlier, has prepared us well for the job. Among all animals, human beings have the best cerebral-neuro-muscular broadcasting system. All we need is to switch on.

A bad speaker is in no position to advise other bad speakers on how to speak badly. But personally I am determined to take corrective actions and for what it is worth, I’ll share some of them.

First and foremost we must reinforce our belief that it is desirable to be vocal. It is not only for personal gain or glory but also it’s part of our contribution to society. Just like the introduction of another candle would make a place even brighter and in no way reduces the incandescence of those which are already lighted, the introduction of another voice would often add colour, flavour, ideas, and even glamour to a discourse and in no way diminishes the stature, importance and relevance of the original speakers.

Having said that, how do we proceed? I have observed in gatherings of doctors, it is usually the same few who dominate the proceedings. I have noticed too that although some possess the charisma and the gift of the gab, are quite learned and even good-looking, the majority I found are just plain ordinary folks; the difference is that they are prepared to stand up and make themselves heard. They aren’t afraid of revealing their ignorance, they aren’t shy about their looks, and they couldn’t care less about bad grammer and pronunciation. What they said may be second class but their attitude is first class and they improve with practice.

We should emulate them. The way to go about it is to be thick-skinned. I was told the story of a man who is very successful with the opposite sex. When  asked what’s the secret of his success, he replied, “Not my riches nor my looks, but I never hesitate or am afraid to chat up those whom I am interested in. You are bound to score if you try enough.” Apparently, he began his apprenticeship early. He started by chatting up those he fancied from the neighbouring girls’ school at bus-stops while still a pimply teenager.

In order to overcome our shyness and inhibition one could try his method but I am sure doctors can devise their own ways. My own training programme involves requesting impossible favours from members of my family and bank managers. I am proud to report that my epidermis is much thicker, criticisms and rebuffs have minimal effect on me and I have become more vocal.

The next step is to learn to talk well. Most doctors would not have time to attend speech and drama classes, join literary and debating societies or enrol in toastmaster courses but I have worked out a few rules.

Rule number one regards the manner of talking. One of the greatest turn off is a haughty speaker, one who assumes an imperious posture, jabs his index finger at his audience, stares at them as if they are inferior beings and talks as if he is the smartest cookie around and that he is doing you a great favour and you better appreciate it. We come across such characters everyday. Teachers, supervisors, dictators, military personnels and parents are among those who often talk like this. This we must guard against for it hurts the feelings of the listeners. 
They may be cowed, overawed or frightened but they will feel ill-disposed towards the speaker for nobody likes to be talked down to or made to feel that they don’t really matter.

The antithesis is to speak earnestly and sincerely, in a friendly manner, treating your audience as equal and with respect. In this way one stands a much better chance of winning them over. I have started to talk to my children in this manner, giving them the benefit of the doubt that they are sensible and intelligent listeners. It is not easy in the beginning but the result is definitely encouraging.

Rule number two is not to talk too hastily. We have a tendency to shoot from the hip because of our highly reactive system but we often make mistakes, sometimes costly ones. Unfortunately, a spoken word cannot be taken back once it is mouthed. It is a good idea therefore to slow down, think first and not to be in too much of a hurry to contribute our ten cents worth of opinions.

This is not easy. However, doctors are lucky because in our work we have the opportunity to practise patience. All we have to do is to let our patients finish what they want to say first before we start. It just means spending a bit more time.

Rule number three is to say “sorry” readily if one had said something wrong. No matter how discreet, careful and well meaning we are, it is inevitable that we make mistakes sometimes. If it happens, one just has to apologise. I don’t know why some people make such a fuss over apologising. It is no big deal, say sorry, and usually it spells the end of the matter. Otherwise people may not be prepared to listen to you again and at worst lead to the breaking up of friendships, marriages, partnerships, alliances and even to boycotts and wars. Human beings are rather sensitive.

Rule number four is if one wants to talk well one must be prepared to listen well too. For example, those MPs who spend time really listening to people in their walk-abouts and meet the people sessions talk well. Feedback helps the speaker because it will indicate to him or her the concern, interest and mood of the audience.

Rule number five is to speak from the heart.  This dosen’t need any elaboration except a reminder that those who do not will sooner or later be found out.

I must now confess that this article was written sometime ago. In the context of what is happening presently it appears that I might have greatly exaggerated the ineptitude of the doctors. In recent times more and more doctors are seen to be giving talks and making speeches, participating in seminars and forums, dispensing tips and advice all over the place, expressing themselves freely and showing oratorical skills while renouncing their traditional self-imposed vow of silence.

The public is now aware of some of the most gifted doctors in our midst. If they remained silent we would not have known of their skills, inventions and multiple talents and not have given them the respect they deserve and doctors will miss out on the reflected glory from their brainy colleagues.

Most of the article is therefore out of date and is merely a record of past thoughts. Readers can best forget what was written. Instead, if they so wish, ponder over what someone else once write: “La parole a été donnee a l’homme pour déguiser sa pensée”, “Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts.”