Professional courtesy

BMJ 2005; 330 doi: (Published 31 March 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;330:797
  1. Kevin Barraclough, general practitioner
  1. Painswick, Gloucestershire

    I sometimes wonder if people are getting angrier. A few years ago I came across some old BMJs and I was struck by how courteous the correspondence was. Doctors disagreed but they were polite about it. These days I sometimes read the letters and wonder if the correspondence really is about hypertension or whether the researcher somehow insulted the correspondent's wife. It may be because of the changed mode of communication. The actual letter—the thing with a stamp and paper—has clearly gone the way of the red squirrel and been replaced by the swifter, sharper toothed email. I have noticed that an email that seemed merely brief one day can appear thoroughly churlish the next.

    The abuse in the journal correspondence columns is never quite explicit. It simmers under the surface—tetchy and irritable—like a sarcastic school teacher. You sense that the author has not quite got the courage to be honest about their rage. “Barraclough states that…” But you know, with the certainty born of years in the playground, that the term “ignorant git” has been deleted from the final version. It is a slight but unnecessary violence upon the world. The ambient temperature of scholarly debate falls a fraction of a degree, and our collective professional life slips minutely towards an ice age of anomie.

    The problem could be the ease with which people can respond without thought. In the days of quill and parchment a response took hours. Maybe now there are just too many opinions out there. Would we all be poorer if the opinion columns of the Daily Mail slipped sideways into a black hole?

    I must admit that I am not faultless in this matter. I remember giving a devastating and incisive critique of Jane Austen, which foundered somewhat when someone asked me if I had actually read any of the novels. It is much easier to have a pithy opinion when not constrained by the complexities of the facts. And reality, particularly in medicine, has a way of being complex.

    TS Eliot, being a mere poet, was once surprised to be recognised by a London taxi driver. “I've a bit of an eye for a celebrity,” the cabbie said. “I had Bertrand Russell in the cab yesterday. ‘Well, Lord Russell,’ I said. ‘What's it all about then?’ And do you know? He couldn't tell me.”

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