Thursday, January 26, 2006

Adventures in Dental Care: French dentists put me at a floss for words

My first trip to the dentist after moving to France was kind of a rude awakening. To protect the dentist's identity, for this column let's just call her "Dr. Dominatrix."

As soon as I arrived in her office, Dr. Dominatrix immediately noticed that I was pregnant (at the time -- not now, thank heavens!) and started telling me all about how she was serving on a committee to give pregnancy-nutrition recommendations. Then, without the slightest encouragement, she launched into a whole elaborate lecture about how pregnant women should not drink skim milk. Her reasoning was essentially that skim milk tastes yucky, so either you won't drink enough or you'll compensate with unhealthy things.

I was listening and nodding with a blank smile on my face, but my tiny brain was saying "Um, I came here to see a dentist. Are you a dentist or what?"

And since I really wasn't in the mood to explain and debate my own equal-and-opposite wacky theory about how pregnant women should drink at least one full liter of skim milk per day, that was strike one in my mind against Dr. Dominatrix.

Then she determined that it was necessary to install some sort of crown-like thing on one of my teeth. Unfortunately, she put it on in such a way that the new piece (and/or the cement to attach it) extended past the relevant tooth and was actually touching the adjacent tooth.

During the follow-up visit, I pointed this problem out and mentioned that I could no longer pass dental floss between the two teeth. Dr. Dominatrix responded with shock and horror:

"Who told you to floss your teeth?!" she asked (in French). She then explained that you should never floss your teeth because flossing can hurt your gums.

She was probably right that it is possible to hurt your gums by flossing if you do it very badly. But it's not like it's rocket science. I like to imagine that if I haven't mastered the basics of flossing safety yet, I could theoretically be trained to do it.

That was strike two against Dr. Dominatrix.

Strike three was more of a general complaint about her bedside manner. I'm not going to say that she seemed indifferent to the possibility that some procedures she performed might cause pain. I think it would be more accurate to say she seemed annoyed by her patient's pain reaction.

The odd thing was that she was a real Americophile, if such a word exists. It should exist, because it's surprisingly common among the French -- contrary to the popular stereotype of French people snootily looking down their noses at Americans. During every single visit she would tell me stories of all of the conferences she'd attended in the U.S. and the latest dental technology she'd learned there. It just kind of amazed me that in all of these conferences she'd never picked up on this exciting American innovation involving the use of dental floss.

After a few years of being treated by Dr. Dominatrix, I finally broke down and decided that I was just going to go to a different dentist. In France you can just do that with no restrictions. Crazy, huh?

I suggested it to my husband as well, but oddly he opted to continue with Dr. Dominatrix. If this means there's something he's not telling me, I'm not sure I really want to know.

For myself I picked a new dentist using the same scientific criterion as I had used to pick my first one, namely proximity to where I live. Since I had moved since choosing my earlier dentist, this algorithm yielded a different result this time.

I am happy to report that I didn't have any problems with my new dentist, whom -- again to protect his identity -- I will call "Dr. Kindly-Gent." I made sure to ask him up front whether he was for or against flossing, and I was relieved to hear that he was in favor of it.

I don't want to give the misimpression here that I'm some sort of flossing fanatic or something. It's just that it was so weird. It would be like if I went to a cardiologist who recommended that I take up smoking and eat more potato chips or something -- I would get this vague sense that there's something not quite right here.

Also, I don't think the typical American necessarily flosses regularly. It's just that if you go six months without flossing between checkups, an American dentist will at least have the decency to lay a major guilt trip on you about it.

Actually it surprised me when I discovered that various French boyfriends seemed unacquainted with the practice of flossing, and even Dr. Kindly-Gent seemed kind of indifferent toward it. It made me wonder why it caught on in the U.S. and not so much in (parts of?) Europe.

I figure it's probably just one of those things, like the fact that it somehow became popular to routinely circumcise all baby boys in the U.S., which I've found they don't do outside of a religious context in Europe. That conclusion didn't stop me from coming up with a theory about it though. Like most of my theories, this one is pure armchair speculation, totally unadulterated by any sort of facts or evidence.

My theory is that flossing first became popular in the U.S. because of the practice of eating corn-on-the-cob. It's tasty stuff, and if you believe that necessity is the mother of invention, you'll agree that it's not too far-fetched to see corn-on-the-cob as naturally spawning the idea of dental floss.

Then -- still according to my entirely made-up theory -- I imagined some clever health professional saying "Hey, this has some health and hygiene benefits."

And who knows? Maybe one day it will catch on in France too.

Published in the Utah Valley Monitor January 12, 2006.


Sideon said...

Dominatrix dentists scare me. Run away, run away!

Anonymous said...

When I went to the dentist for the 1st time here in Finland, I was surprised as well. There was no teeth cleaning, she said my teeth looked fine and that it wasn't necessary and there was no mention of flossing. Hmmm. Here you are assigned a dentist according to where you live, unless maybe you go to a private dentist.

My theory about the non-emphasis on flossing was that Europeans are much less bacteria-phobic and less sanitary freaks than in the US. Here you can hardly find any anti-bacterial products like hand soap, body soap, household cleaners, etc.

Anonymous said...

You might be interested to have a go at the BBC Life Expentancy calculator ( You might understand why French people, despite all their 'bizarre' ideas (I mean bizarre from an outsider's point of you of course ;-), have one of the longest life expentancy in the world...

If you are afraid to do the test - here is the relevant piece of info:
Q10: Do you floss your teeth every day?
Recent scientific evidence reveals that chronic gum disease leads to the release of certain bacteria and inflammatory, toxic substances into the blood stream which potentiate plaque formation in arteries and ultimately lead to heart disease. This process probably also increases the risk of stroke and accelerated ageing. For more information:

Au revoir ;-)

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey anonymous!!!

Thanks for the links!!!

I took the test and scored an 88. I guess I have a few unhealthy-lifestyle items to work on. I floss regularly, but not every day -- maybe I should work on that...

Anonymous said...

I am in France from Canada and the dental care is a nightmare: No cleaning , dirty offices and work performed as if working on a car.

Thie prices though are almost nothing: 70Eurose for a rootcannal and tooth rebild, cheep but done way too quickly and with out much care.
It should be noted that their government pay/compensation is nothing like the money a dentist in the US or Canada can make.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey d333gs!!!

I didn't visit enough dentists in France to have a large enough sample size to say something serious about that subset of health care. But as far as the overall healthcare there is concerned -- while it's true that many doctors work out of old, reconverted apartments -- the quality of healthcare has been consistently better than what I experienced in the U.S., despite the shiny new clinic buildings the U.S. doctors tend to have. See my follow-up article Those Wacky Health Insurance Companies!!!.

Unknown said...

"decided that I was just going to go to a different dentist. In France you can just do that with no restrictions. Crazy, huh?" - No, that is normal. What happens in USA it's crazy. It's funny you didn't realise that US is the freak :)) And i bet her name was Dominique

Gainesville dentists

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Cetatzeanul!!!

Right, that line was meant to be sarcastic.

Anonymous said...

Circumcision first became common in the US during the late Victorian period as a way to "prevent" masturbaton. Dr. Kellog - better known today for Kellog's Corn Flakes - was a big advocate of it at the time. But even that practice in the US has been slowly declining over the years.

BarbnChris said...

Hi there !
I'm french and I live in New Zealand. I just read your article and had a good laugh.

I know what you mean for the flossing, I just discovered this here. It's really stupid that we are not taught to floss, it would have spared me a lot of trouble with my teeth !

Anonymous is totally right about the sanitary freaks but sometimes, I wish we would be a little more bacteria-phobic, like stop shaking hands when people have a cold...

One the other hand, what I also discovered in NZ was my dentist bill : 4000$nz to change most of my fillings that are damaged.

I just told her that for that price, I could by a return ticket to France, have the job done and still have plenty of money left.

Anyway, good luck living in France !