Few people come as close to the average face as a dentist does. Ophthalmologists hide behind those steampunk-y binocular machines; makeup artists have long-handled brushes; and dermatologists get to worry about other parts of the body for hours at a time. But dentists and dental hygienists have no way around it: They spend most of their days inside the faces of people who aren’t their sexual or romantic partners. Lying helpless in a reclining chair, the best a patient can do to make the too-intimate experience less awkward is close her eyes until it’s over. Shutting your lids until the rinse-and-spit command is the normal thing to do.
Or is it? Some dentists make active small talk, and it seems rude to zone out or avoid eye contact when you’re meant to grunt in assent or smize at a joke. Dentists who install iPads or TVs overhead seem to invite an open-eyed approach to their open-mouthed examinations. Then again, unprotected eyes may get flecked with water, spit, and whatever particles the dentist’s tools dislodge. How are we supposed to know which way our eyelids should go?
An unscientific anonymous poll of 114 of my friends and acquaintances suggests that nobody knows. “It literally never occurred to me to close my eyes,” one person responded. “It's weird to look into the dentist's eyes! It feels like I'm seeking intimacy, when really I just want my teeth cleaned,” wrote another. There were many strong opinions in the responses, but no clear consensus on right and wrong. When it comes to eyes at the mouth office, it’s “I feel awkward AF looking into my dentist’s face” versus “Closed feels weird, right? I feel like closed is the weird one here.”
I’d never thought to be concerned about my behavior in the dentist’s chair until my last dental cleaning. Halfway through the appointment, I realized that my eyes weren’t just closed—they were clenched shut, with quivering eyelashes and a furrowed brow to boot. I relaxed my face, not wanting my dentist to think I was in pain or stressed out about a simple cleaning. Then, a horrifying thought entered my mind: What if my eyes aren’t supposed to be closed at all? I’ve never seen anyone else get their teeth cleaned—it’s totally possible that everyone else watches the entire procedure, and my dentist thinks I either have an intense phobia of flossing assistance (I don’t) or an intense fetish for latex gloves, closing my eyes to fully savor the experience of her hands in my mouth (not true).
So it gives me great pleasure and relief to report that there seems to be no weird way to get your teeth cleaned. My poll responses show a healthy split: About 56 percent keep their eyes open, 37 percent close them, and 7 percent do a little of both.
But what do the professionals think? Eileen Danaher, a Rhode Island dentist who’s been practicing for three years, says about 60 percent of her patients keep their eyes open for cleanings, though she attributes that majority in part to her talkative chairside manner. Pennsylvania-based dentist Gulia Omene thinks most of her patients keep them open, especially during cleanings—that’s when they’re looking for “feedback on their gum tissue” and are more receptive to chatter, she says—though her assistant thinks it’s closer to 50-50. For more involved procedures, the ratio flips. Danaher estimates that 95 of her patients shut their eyes for an injection in their mouths; about 53 percent of my poll participants said they close their eyes for anything more complex than a simple cleaning.
Danaher believes her patients decide what to do with their eyes based on their least favorite part of the dental experience: Those most bothered by the sight of sharp instruments or the bright light overhead close their eyes, and those unnerved by the sounds of drills and whirring brushes keep them open to have some sensory distraction. Meditators and deep breathers close their eyes; people who distrust dental professionals—like my survey participant who prefers an open-eyed exam “to make sure no funny business is going down while a stranger's hands are in my mouth”—watch the whole procedure as it happens.
Dental workers have come up with all sorts of visual stimuli to make the time go by for open-eyed patients. I used to visit a dental office with comic strips taped to the ceiling; a colleague’s dentist has decorative panels that look like calm, puffy clouds on the fluorescent overhead lights. Bougier locales have mounted televisions or iPads within view of the chair, and some offer dark glasses to shield a patient’s eyes from flying debris and the exam light. Danaher’s dream is to get a giant “Where’s Waldo?” panel for her ceiling if she ever opens her own practice.
If so many dentists provide so many forms of in-chair entertainment, open eyes must be the norm—right? For some, taking the hint still feels inconsiderate. “I feel [like closing my eyes is] polite to the dentist/technician. If I were in their shoes, I'd be able to focus better if I didn't have a pair of scared eyes in my face,” wrote one poll participant. Another guessed that open eyes would seem “creepy-like” to a dentist at work. The dentists I spoke with roundly dismissed that fear. “It’s never awkward if your eyes are open,” Danaher told me. “You’d think being in that close proximity to somebody, it would be—but we’re two feet away from people all day long, so that doesn’t bother me. Now, if somebody was staring me dead in the eyes and not blinking, that might be a different story.” Danaher’s father, Gerald, a Syracuse-based dentist who’s been in the field for 30 years, says about 70 percent of his patients keep their eyes open, which helps him keep tabs on their experience. “Usually the eyes will tell me how they’re doing,” Gerald told me. “The look in their eye—if they’re darting back and forth, I’ll ask, ‘Are you feeling something?’”
Usually, dental patients in pain or the throes of anxiety will close their eyes. That’s not a problem, dentists say, unless they’re tensing up the rest of their faces, too. Jack Greenspan, a Connecticut dentist (and my partner’s dad) who’s had his hands in people’s mouths for 49 years and counting, says the only strict command he ever gave as a captain and dentist in the Air Force was to a terrified lieutenant who’d scrunched up his eyes and cheeks too tight to accommodate dental instruments. “This is a direct order, lieutenant,” Greenspan said. “Relax your face now.”
But for a lucky few, closed eyes mean the ultimate form of relaxation: a nap. Yes, reader! Some people—some magical, super-Zen, rubber-jawed people—actually conk out while a stranger takes a drill to their molars. Dentists say they love it when their patients fall asleep in the chair. “People will sometimes walk in and say, ‘Oh my God, I’m so nervous,’” Danaher says. “When those people fall asleep, it’s a giant win. It’s the biggest compliment you can give your dentist.” This perception can work in a nervous patient’s favor. One of my survey respondents wrote that, at the dentist’s, “I pretend I am taking a nap since it's weird to be in a room with someone for half an hour and not speak to them.”
Faking sleep is extreme; most people who close their eyes at the dentist’s are just relaxing or spiriting their minds away from the physical discomfort and forced intimacy of a dental exam. They are also not normal. Open is the favored eye position of a small majority of dental patients, and dentists seem to be molding their exam rooms, with their fancy TVs and elaborate ceiling decorations, to that norm. Keeping your eyes open will put you in the company of the majority of your peers, so dentists will be ever so slightly less likely to consider you abnormal. Whether normalcy is worth the occasional fleck of plaque to the eyeball is your call.
Read more from Normal, Slate's pop-up blog about how you're supposed to do it.