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EMS From a Distance: Language and prose on the offensive

Preserving civility as ladies and gentlemen is reason enough to be reasonable


Long before I recorded my first blood pressure as an EMT, I was a hockey writer for a now-defunct monthly magazine. Our 1973 Stanley Cup Playoffs issue included my predictions about which players would disappoint. Non-clairvoyants like me who write such nonsense guess wrong a lot, like when I said New York Rangers’ goaltender Ed Giacomin would be the “goat” of his team’s opening round against the Boston Bruins. Goat didn’t mean greatest of all time, as it does now in sports; then it was short for scapegoat.

Giacomin was magnificent. He starred in that series, winning four of five games. I expected a ration of good-natured ridicule, but then I started getting legitimate hate mail from indignant Rangers fans. Some of their sleazy prose was shocking in its depravity. All of it was anonymous. I tried to imagine what it would be like to meet the authors: Would they be as willing to insult me without the U.S. Postal Service acting as a buffer?

Choosing words carefully in EMS

If we want to stay in the patient-care business, we choose our words carefully, not letting feel-good expressions of frustration diminish the way we’re perceived. (Photo/Pixabay)
If we want to stay in the patient-care business, we choose our words carefully, not letting feel-good expressions of frustration diminish the way we’re perceived. (Photo/Pixabay)

Fast-forward to the third millennium. I write for EMS now. My audience is mostly EMTs and paramedics – people like me who are, among other things, professional communicators. Our principal medium is spoken words. If we want to stay in the patient-care business, we choose our words carefully, not letting feel-good expressions of frustration diminish the way we’re perceived. That’s why I’m surprised at the volume of offensive remarks I see online daily – not by agitators on society’s fringe, but by high-functioning caregivers who use social media to insult from a distance. I find that modern form of hate mail just as unpleasant as the hard-copy version.

I like to think civility, like loyalty, has timeless value. I’m not sure that’s a mainstream opinion anymore. In our modern, push-button culture, where it’s easy to offend at the speed of light, emerging sensibilities seem to prize candor, no matter how coarse, over words chosen as carefully to preserve goodwill as to convey meaning. I say that because of the many comments I’ve seen on the internet belittling cautious, thoughtful speech as “politically correct,” which even my dictionary disparages as “excessive sensitivity to minority causes.”

Can we no longer distinguish courtesy from social activism? Has thinking before speaking become a sign of weakness?

EMT and Paramedic titles come with more expectations

The patches we wear on our uniforms say EMT or Paramedic, but those titles represent only part of what our employers have a right to expect from us. We’re supposed to be ladies and gentlemen, too. Yes, those terms sound antiquated and inconsistent with essential services, which we’re led to believe favor dispassionate decision-making as a prelude to daring rescue. Even when calls go that way – especially when calls go that way – poise has to be a priority. Being ladies and gentlemen is most important when it’s least convenient.

When I was growing up, “ladies” and “gentlemen” were ideals characterized by polite, accommodating behavior. Our parents, teachers and religious leaders saw such dignity as a practiced art and kept the pressure on us to acquire the requisite grace and chivalry (the latter if you were a guy). Ladies and gentlemen may have seemed old-fashioned and relatively inflexible to us kids, but even in the non-conforming ’60s, we needed gatekeepers to preserve a default level of civility that helped citizens with different values seek ways around disagreement.

EMS providers – of all people – should appreciate compromise. We live in life’s grey areas, striving in the field to balance cumbersome therapeutics with practicality, and proactive urgency with informed consent. Off duty, we struggle more than many of our patients to reconcile income with expenses, ultimately agreeing to work two or three jobs to achieve a middle-class lifestyle that’s hard to sustain with so little discretionary time. Compromise at home, compromise at work – none of that is new to us.

Now we find ourselves in a time of conflict as divisive as Vietnam-era violence. Online correspondents quarrel over good and bad – not as matters of opinion, but as supposedly indisputable truths. Compromise and tact – tools for seeking common ground – have been supplanted by invective and venom. Whether rudeness is enabled by social media or exposed by it is moot; hate mongers are shielded by obscurity and empowered by like-minded readers who can register their allegiance merely by clicking “Like.” Until Facebook adds a “Seriously?” button, I guess the open-minded among us can best react by treating malicious posts as nuisances worth no more regard than robocalls.

I’m not there yet. I still respond online to the most egregious examples of intolerance, usually with self-deprecating humor or light sarcasm. My goals are modest: to be inoffensive, to communicate from a distance the same way I would in person, and to not feed into the us-against-them mentality that is ruining civil discourse.

At best, I’m two for three.

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