EMS arguments on social media are for the birds

When people lash out in personal attacks I hit back harder, but arguing only goads them into defending their position, not examining it critically

“Never play chess with a pigeon. It knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory.”

I argue a lot on social media.

Yeah, I know it’s pointless. But the passion I hold for my profession is something I can’t just turn off, and I sometimes find myself furiously typing replies to some faceless EMT who committed the unpardonable sin of being wrong on the Internet.

Recently, I quit following a bunch of EMS Facebook pages because those arguments had become like the proverbial chess match with a pigeon. Some were worse than others, and for one in particular, the page administrator was the worst pigeon of all. For me, the pointless chess matches and incessant T-shirt shirt ads ruined it for me.

But I couldn’t resist the urge for a parting shot, and in so doing, touched off yet another argument that resulted in a bunch of hurt feelings. A lot of good EMTs still follow those pages, and my need to get in the last word alienated them, too. I could have just simply walked away, and let my feelings be known by my absence from the discussion.

I went too far.

I make it a point not to be rude or insulting, but too often when some “Low Information Voter” insists on being willfully ignorant or engages in an ad hominem attack, I reply in kind. I forget sometimes that when people debate, many find it impossible to be dispassionate about their views, and when challenged on them, take it personally. And when they lash out in personal attacks, I hit back. Harder.

I have a PhD in sarcasm, folks. I can eviscerate with words. And I shouldn’t.

As one fellow EMS educator put it to me recently, “You’re Kelly friggin’ Grayson. Young EMTs look up to you. They look at you as an example of how to behave. You’re supposed to be better than that.”

He’s right.

I’m not quite sure how I acquired the mantle of an Elder Statesmen of EMS, and I’m not sure even now that the mantle fits. Certainly there are many others in EMS with more experience and more influence than I. Some of them, true sages still practicing EMS every day, I admire and seek their counsel. But for whatever reason, probably because I embraced this burgeoning realm of social media more and sooner than they did, my voice speaks louder.

A standard not always met

I was reminded of this fact recently at the Texas EMS Conference, when three talented young EMTs nervously approached me at the piano bar. I (reluctantly) broke off from belting out "You Never Called Me By My Name" to listen to them tell me how they had been reading my stuff for years, or how much my Welcome to EMS essay influenced them when they were in school.

That sort of thing never fails to astound me. To them, Bryan Bledsoe is just the name on the cover of their textbooks. They’ve never even heard of Jim Page. Johnny and Roy were just a couple of guys on some show on TV Land. And then it occurs to me:

That essay was written four years ago.

Kids who read it at the beginning of EMT class are paramedics now. And I really shouldn’t call them kids. They’re grown men and women, as passionate about their profession as I. They’re still trying to live up to the exhortation I made when they first embarked on their careers; striving to be worthy of the honor of caring for another human being in his or her time of worst need.

They’re living up to a standard I don’t always meet myself, and I look around me and discover that there are a lot more of them than there were even 10 years ago. I don’t feel so outnumbered by the Low Information Voters of EMS as I once did.

And what spoke to them was me trying to be inspirational, not me yelling at a bunch of kids to get off my metaphorical EMS lawn. There’s a lesson in there, if we’re wise enough to see it.

Sell the sizzle, not the steak

At that conference, Jason Dush and I delivered a lecture entitled “Eating Our Own Young.” In it, we talked about how rampant tribalism is in EMS and society in general: whether it’s vollie vs. paid, fire vs. commercial, dispatchers vs. field crews, AMR vs. Acadian, nurses vs. paramedics, dinosaurs vs. rookies, my medical director can beat up your medical director…

We all tend to separate ourselves into cliques. While those cliques give their members a sense of community, emphasizing artificial distinctions over commonalities tears us apart, and limits us professionally.

And while giving that lecture, I realized I am guilty of it myself. My sin is engaging in tribal warfare; the smart kids versus the dumb kids. I can’t let an ignorant comment pass unchallenged, and often the other kids in my clique will post a screenshot in the Smart Kids’ Clubhouse so we can all head over en masse to beat up the dumb kid.

What we should be doing is inviting more of the “dumb” kids to join our club. Because most often, they just approach patient care differently than I do, and arguing only goads them into defending their position, not examining it critically. The point of debate is not to show off your intelligence to the spectators, it’s to convince your opponent that you’re right. You’ve got to sell your idea.

A wise high school teacher once told me that the first lesson of marketing is, “Sell the sizzle, not the steak.” Droning on and on about evidence-based medicine and confidence intervals and odds ratios is ultimately just clinically describing a piece of meat. It doesn’t make anyone hungry. If you want to sell that steak – and honestly, what is teaching but selling knowledge – you have to sell the sizzle. You have to make them hungry.

Know your buyer

And that leads to the second rule of marketing, which is, “Know your buyer.” The first step in knowing your buyer is developing a rapport with him. You have to see things through his eyes, know his desires and motivations.

And who knows, once you get to know him a little better, you might just discover that you have a lot in common, and even grow to like him.

That’s a lesson I’m still learning, and my resolution: No more playing chess with pigeons, and make sure the people I argue with are actually pigeons before walking away from the game.

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