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What's my line?

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AS I took my seat at a recent dinner party, the hostess introduced me to the lady sitting to my left: ‘Martin, this is Sonia. She's a feng shui expert. And Sonia, this is Martin. He's a vet’.

Sonia, who had been eyeing the other guests with ill-disguised boredom, was suddenly transformed. Putting down her wine glass, she shook hands with me fervently, her eyes sparkling. ‘A vet?’, she squeaked. ‘How fortunate. Can I just ask you about my dog? He's a Spinone – I don't know if you've heard of them – they're not that common in this country…. I nodded, trying to impress on her that I did indeed know about this particular Italian breed, but she swept on, unheeding. ‘He's been scratching for weeks. My vet says it's a flea allergy, but I don't believe him. I've been on the internet and I think it might be his blood overheating. He does like to lie next to the radiator….

And so it went on. And on. What had looked like a perfectly pleasant evening was suddenly hijacked by someone who thought I liked nothing better on a Saturday night than to listen to a monologue about her ill animals and the failures, shortcomings and idiosyncrasies perpetuated by her current vet. When I was allowed to speak, it was only when I was requested – no, commanded – to offer my opinion on the dog, which was no doubt fed back in a garbled half-truth to her hapless vet first thing on Monday morning.

Sound familiar? There can't be many vets who haven't found themselves in this situation at some point in their professional career, and while most of us are usually quite happy to make constructive suggestions if a concerned owner asks a question about their pet during a social evening, I don't think many of us enjoy being cornered by someone who wants endless free advice and an instant diagnosis. Needless to say, for an animal we have never seen and which has a case history which is usually confusing (‘. . . then the vet gave me some white-ish tablets and told me to give two tablets four times a day – or was that four tablets twice daily? – but I feel that made Fifi vomit more often…) and/or full of irrelevant information (‘I think the signs started just after my next door neighbour went on holiday. Or no, it might have been before then…).

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I can never decide how to deal with these situations, although it depends on the circumstances, of course. If it happens while socialising at a pub or during a drinks party, I can usually escape after a few minutes by excusing myself from whoever has pinned me in a corner, saying that I need to get another drink or that the babysitter wants me back home by 9 pm. At a sit-down event like a dinner party, other than feigning a heart attack, it's a lot more difficult to extract myself without being overtly rude or obviously evasive.

But it's not just limited to vets. My cousin, a dentist by profession, says he is frequently asked about crowns, bridges and teeth-whitening whenever he is at a social gathering, and his wife, an ophthalmologist, tries to keep quiet about what she does, otherwise she is bombarded by questions on the pros and cons of laser eye surgery. The only fail-safe escape that I have come across is the method employed by a close friend who is a doctor. Whenever someone buttonholes him with a medical query at a party, he immediately explains that he specialises in pathology, and therefore he can only help them if they are dead. This, he assures me, means that he is then left in peace for the rest of the evening.

So, I'm beginning to think that at any future social gathering I won't own up to being a vet at all, and will instead claim to be an undertaker, or maybe a mortuary assistant. That should – and I use the expression deliberately – kill any awkward conversation instantly!

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