A man finds himself sitting at a Shabbat table lined with religious Jews next to a physician whom he’s never met. This is an informal, social occasion. Yet when the physician learns that the man sitting next to him has triplets, he asks, “Oh, did your wife have hormone injections?”
A physician sits at the dining room table in the presence of children telling them stories about their father. While the children eat, she tells them about a time when their father was ill, giving graphic details that clearly disgust the children and nearly drive one of them from the table altogether.
A man in the psychology field notices that a child in the room mispronounces certain words, and begins a commentary on the topic in the child’s hearing that continues intermittently for days.
A couple in the medical field, sitting in a restaurant, notice that a patron who has just walked in has a limp. They stare, confer together in whispers, and stare some more until the patron walks out, then begin a discussion of what sort of health problem the patron must have.
All of these situations involve what the active parties would class as “professional curiosity.” The oddities, imperfections, and even misfortunes of others, if they correspond in any way to the parties’ professions, offer boundless opportunities for amusement for the parties themselves.
However, there are two key facts that these “professionals” overlook in their indulgence of this form of amusement. One, that their subjects have ears, and two, that their subjects have feelings. Outside the lecture hall, therapy room, or examination room, their professional lives continue regardless of the fact that their subjects of interest are not consulting or paying them. The fact that their commentary and questioning embarrass or gross out their subjects of interest escapes them. They don’t seem to notice.
“Sorry, I just can’t help it,” one individual said to me when I requested a cessation of the uncalled-for medical commentary. “I just thought you’d want a medical opinion,” I heard on another occasion. A third was, “I have a professional interest in this.”
Discretion and good manners are Jewish values, but not exclusively. Confidentiality is expected of every medical and mental health professional. Every hospital elevator I’ve been in for the past decade has had notices posted reminding patients and visitors to avoid all conversation pertaining to a patient’s status to preserve confidentiality. And patients in the U.S. are given a form to sign acknowledging their rights to privacy and knowledge of how medical information can be shared according to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996.
Professionals who teach or care for the sick are a necessity in any society. It is even understandable that their professional interest carries over into their civilian lives. However, no professional has license to breach the dictates of good manners, or to walk the earth criticizing, analyzing, embarrassing, browbeating, or humiliating others out of “professional curiosity.” In Judaism, to embarrass others is considered equal in severity to murdering them. Professionalism is best kept in its professional milieu.