Gallows humor in medicine is not necessarily derogatory humor. At least according to an article in the Hastings Report written by Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine bioethicist and Second City improvisation comedy instructor Katie Watson, who quotes a physician explaining that it's the difference between “whistling as you go through the graveyard and kicking over the gravestones.”
Outliers: Coping with laughter
Watson notes that cynical or degrading humor is often used by physicians when a patient's successful treatment requires behavioral changes that a doctor is powerless to bring about. She adds that gallows humor is often common among young medical residents who bear the brunt of family or patient anger and are often in need of food, sleep and “emotional safety,” so laughter may provide “compensatory nourishment.” In fact, the article begins with an anecdote about how, after failing to save the life of a teen who was shot while delivering a pizza to the hospital ER, a resident asks, “How much do you think we should tip him?”
While Watson applauds the end of pranks that historically went on in medical school cadaver labs or jokes intended to harass women or minorities in diversifying workplaces, she says tying to suppress all gallows humor would not only be futile, but shows a lack of empathy for clinicians.
“Medicine is an odd profession, in which we ask ordinary people to act as if feces and vomit do not smell, unusual bodies are not at all remarkable, and death is not frightening,” Watson writes. “Being off-balance can make us laugh, and sometimes laughing is what keeps us from falling over.”
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