Gallows humor has long been a part of medicine, and research shows that when deployed appropriately it can relieve tension in stressful situations.1 The COVID-19 pandemic clearly qualifies as stressful, given its effects on physical and financial health.
But gallows humor is always risky. Few topics have more potential to cause offense than joking about suffering and death.
“The danger with gallows humor … is when the object of the humor is a member of the team or community,” Christopher P. Chiodo, MD, and Brady Greene, BS, write in the March/April edition of FPM. “In such cases, the humor becomes aggressive.”
They provide some practical tips for deploying humor in a primary care setting.
1. Make fun of yourself first. For example, in the context of the pandemic, if you, as a physician, have been diagnosed with COVID-19 and your staff is understandably worried about you, it might be appropriate to ease the tension by joking, “Hey, at least now I’ll get a couple weeks off.” But you wouldn’t want to make that same joke about someone else’s diagnosis.
2. Know your audience. COVID-19 is potentially serious for everybody, but people who are older or have underlying medical conditions are particularly at risk and therefore less likely to be in the mood to joke about it.
3. Use humor in moderation. When humor is used too frequently during an interaction or within a relationship, it can encroach on perceptions of your competence. But when used in moderation, it can enrich relationships with colleagues and patients alike.
1. Watson K. Gallows humor in medicine. Hastings Cent Rep. 2011;41(5):37-45.
Read the full FPM article: “Is This Some Kind of Joke? Understanding and Using Humor in the Clinical Setting."
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