Language and communication have defined my personal and professional life. After I learned Spanish as my first language in Puerto Rico, my family moved to Baltimore. I vividly remember the isolation I felt. I couldn’t communicate with my first-grade classmates, Girl Scout Brownie troop, or girls on my street. My mother refused to speak to me in Spanish. That assimilation prepared me for subsequent ones, in which the language was the same, but the dialects were different. Along the journey to adulthood, I learned the language of being “female,” “American,” and “Latina,” which encompassed not only vocabulary but a host of cultural contexts that influenced who I was supposed to be.
Explore This IssueJune 2021
After medical school, I decided to learn the language of otolaryngology, which is undisputedly the specialty of communication. I learned to say “chronic rhinosinusitis with nasal polyposis” and “electrocochleography” with the same ease as I had learned “un carro verde.” With every new language comes a learning curve, and I remember one of my residency attendings telling me to stop dictating “BMT” in the op report, since this was translated to “bone marrow transplant” instead of bilateral myringotomy tubes. I learned to speak hoagie, BBQ, pierogi, and green chili through relocation for training and jobs. As a mom of two boys, I’ve perfected the language of potty humor.
I’ve also become more aware of how language can help us feel at home in a foreign place but can also create an artificial divide. It’s all too easy to make assumptions about those who use a different vocabulary, whether it’s related to gender, race and ethnicity, geographic location, socioeconomic status, or education level. Disrespectful rhetoric on social media, the use of slurs, and remarks meant to demean others diminish our ability to achieve meaningful change. Language has become more politicized than ever, and we use the excuse of free speech to justify personal attacks on those with whom we disagree. We should prioritize the common languages of humor, kindness, and respect.
As otolaryngologists, we’ve taken the Hippocratic Oath to do no harm, but we must also adhere to an implied oath to preserve communication in its myriad forms. As we diagnose and treat head and neck disorders that rob those in our communities of their quality of life, we should strive to express ourselves in positive ways. My Spanish-speaking patients tell me they feel more listened to when I converse with them in their native tongue, but this isn’t the only way to create a bond. Finding common ground with our patients and colleagues should take priority over any perceived differences between us. Language alone isn’t enough to fix complex issues such as racism, sexism, and discrimination of all kinds, but it matters. To paraphrase Maya Angelou, people will forget what you said, but not how you made them feel.
—Cristina Cabrera-Muffly, MD