In a recent article in the Hastings Center Report, Katie Watson presents a discussion she calls “Gallows Humor in Medicine.” The concept of laughter in the face of challenging situations is one we often face in Hospice work. And we laugh and find humor in our work, often as a means of coping with the harsh realities of life. Yet, her discussion tries to look at the subject through the eyes of whether it is ethically problematic to express humor in the face of other’s trauma. The biggest insight I found in the entire article is that humor in the medical profession is actually decreasing. She points out that residents don’t play as many tricks on fellow residents using cadavers, and as with other places, hazing is down as well. For many, these trends are not positive, to which I would agree. It is true that we shouldn’t laugh at all problems and traumas, but it is important to, at least internally, have some levity in the face of the sadness. I have quoted for you the introduction and conclusions of her piece.
It was 3:00 am and three tired emergency room residents were wondering why the pizza they’d ordered hadn’t come yet. A nurse interrupted their pizza complaints with a shout: “GSW Trauma One—no pulse, no blood pressure.”
The residents rushed to meet the gurney and immediately recognized the unconscious shooting victim: he was the teenage delivery boy from their favorite all-night restaurant, and he’d been mugged bringing their dinner.
That made them work even harder. A surgeon cracked the kid’s rib cage and exposed his heart, but the bullet had torn it open and they couldn’t even stabilize him for the OR. After forty minutes of resuscitation they called it: time of death, 4:00 a.m.
The young doctors shuffled into the temporarily empty waiting area. They sat in silence. Then David said what all three were thinking.
“What happened to our pizza?”
Joe found their pizza box where the delivery boy dropped it before he ran from his attackers. It was face up, a few steps away from the ER’s sliding doors. Joe set it on the table. They stared at it. Then one of the residents made a joke.
“How much you think we ought to tip him?”
The residents laughed. Then they ate the pizza.
David told me this story fifteen years after he finished his residency, but the urgency with which he told it made it seem like it happened last night. “You’re the ethicist,” he said. “Was it wrong to make a joke?”
Gallows humor is humor that treats serious, frightening, or painful subject matter in a light or satirical way. Joking about death fits the term most literally, but making fun of life-threatening, disastrous, or terrifying situations fits the category as well. There is a fair amount of literature on humor in medicine generally, most of which is focused on humor in clinician-patient interactions or humor’s benefit to patients.1 There is relatively little specifically addressing the topic of this article: gallows humor in medicine, which usually occurs in interactions between health care providers.
Gallows humor is not a feel-good, Patch Adams kind of humor, but it is not synonymous with all cruel humor, either. As one physician put it, the difference between gallows humor and derogatory humor is like “the difference between whistling as you go through the graveyard and kicking over the gravestones.”2 Many health care providers witness or participate in gallows humor at some point. After reviewing over forty medical memoirs, Suzanne Poirier reports that “Anger and gallows humor are generally accepted forms of expression among undergraduate and graduate medical students . . . but expressions of serious self-doubt or grief are usually kept private or shared with only a trusted few.”3
David’s question intrigued me as a bioethicist because it is about moral distress, power imbalances between doctors and patients, and good people making surprising choices. But it also piqued my interest as someone who enjoys joking around—when not teaching bioethics, I teach improv and sketch writing at Second City, where I’m an adjunct faculty member. But David didn’t ask me if the tip joke was funny. He asked about it in ethics’ normative terms of right and wrong.
In this article, I consider whether some joking between medical professionals is actually unethical. The claim that being a physician is so difficult that “anything goes” backstage misuses the concept of coping as cover for cruelty, or as an excuse for not addressing maladaptive responses to pain. However, blanket dismissals of gallows humor as unprofessional misunderstand or undervalue the psychological, social, cognitive, and linguistic ways that joking and laughing work. Physicians deserve a more nuanced analysis of intent and impact in discussions of when gallows humor should be discouraged or condemned in the medical workplace. They also deserve deeper consideration of physician health than the professionalism lens might provide. Surely we can advocate for the humanity of patients without denying the humanity of those who treat them…
One of medical training’s first requirements is the violation of strong cultural taboos around death and dead bodies. Dissecting corpses has generated “cadaver antics” that many older physicians recall fondly—making jokes, clowning around with body parts, and pulling pranks to scare labmates. Joking like this helps turn corpses into cadavers by framing bodies as objects. Until recently, cadaver antics were a rite of passage, initiation, and enculturation into an ethos that said a doctor is a tough person who can laugh at death. Not just not cry about death. Laugh. Today cadaver antics are rarely tolerated, and the modern approach frames cadavers as former people. Students are commonly asked to imagine lives lived before these bodies died, and to journal or discuss their emotional reactions in small groups.26 Many classes end with a memorial service students create to thank the people they have dissected for donating their bodies, and sometimes they even meet the donor’s family members.27 The concept of performativity is helpful here: how must a person change the way she or he looks, acts, and feels to both perform the social role of doctor and to be recognized as one? The modern approach to anatomy lab represents a dramatic shift away from a macho joke-about-death performance of the role of doctor, and toward compassion and connection as being performative elements that help define the role of doctor.
The medical workplace may be changing, too. I’ve heard older physicians lament that the workplace is not as funny as it used to be, that practicing physicians do not joke around together like they used to. If that’s true, perhaps one reason is that the easy in-group joking they remember was based not just on being physicians, but on the broader bond of being straight white male physicians. The increasing diversification of medicine narrows the meaning of “it’s just us” to what’s truly distinctive about providing health care, versus simple differences in physician and patient demographics. It’s also possible that the dramatic increase in women physicians has unique effects on gallows humor. It’s a generalization rife with individual exceptions, but if there are differences in stereotypically male and female forms of humor, it stands to reason that the increased presence of women might cause a cultural shift in when and how backstage gallows humor is used in the workplace. This gender shift may also have made coping mechanisms that substitute for joking about fear and sadness (like verbal expressions of these emotions) more acceptable in the medical workplace.
I applaud the cadaver lab changes, and I strongly support the backstage changes that make a diverse workforce welcome. I also support efforts to define what I think of as HOG talk (“House of God talk”) as unprofessional because shallow bullying and derogatory slang coarsen the moral enterprise of medicine and cut providers off from healthier means of coping.
Yet in some areas, perhaps the hand wringing has gone too far. Condemnation of gallows humor is sometimes premised on a category mistake (such as lumping it together with all making fun of patients28) or a double standard. For example, an article titled “Humor in the Physician-Patient Encounter” contrasts a short treatment of “Destructive Gallows Humor” between providers, which frames all gallows humor as “‘sick’ wit and hurtful humor used to separate providers from patients,” with a long treatment of “Therapeutic Humor” between providers and patients, which is “grounded on a recognition of the human condition that is shared by patient and provider.”29 What the article fails to acknowledge is the human condition that is shared by provider and provider. Critics of backstage gallows humor who are admirably concerned with empathy for patients sometimes seem curiously devoid of empathy for physicians. 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. Moments when health care providers suddenly see the enormous gulf they’re straddling between medical and lay culture are one source of gallows humor. Being off-balance can make us laugh, and sometimes laughing is what keeps us from falling over.
Empathy for clinicians does not mean anything goes; it means clinicians must be conceptualized as human beings rather than as robotic systems for care delivery. Laughing and caring for others are both sources of joy. Suggesting physicians can only enjoy one of these pleasures in certain circumstances costs them something, and therefore deserves thoughtful justification.
Should They Joke?
Insights from the humanities and social sciences supply the context required to fully analyze David’s ethics question: Was it wrong to make the tip joke? When is behind-the-scenes gallows humor okay, and when should it cause concern? Underlying all this, the ethics question may be, “When is joking a form of abuse?”—abuse of a patient, abuse of trust, or abuse of power.
To answer, I would first want to think about who is harmed by the joking.30
- Within the text of the joke, who or what is the true target? Does close reading reveal it to be a defenseless patient? Or is the joke really aimed at a doctor who is defenseless against death, decay, and chronic illness?
- Could the joke harm the way future care is delivered? By using the power of humor to frame the patient in a way the patient cannot challenge, could the backstage joke bias listeners’ future interactions with that particular patient? Does the repetition of stereotyping jokes about “patients like these” contribute to making the health care provider calloused toward a particular demographic?
- Could the joke harm the profession by diverting anger caused by structural problems (like caseloads so high that patients feel like the enemy, or scheduling that results in chronic sleep deprivation) and releasing it on the easy punching bag of patients rather than using it to make productive changes?
- Who is listening to the joke? Gallows humor that seems ethical backstage can become unethical in front of patients, families, or others because it has the potential to harm them directly.
Next, I would want to ask about the health care provider’s relationship to the joking.
- What’s the clinician’s underlying intent in joking? Is gallows humor being used as a helpful defense mechanism when circumstances limit the options for processing something difficult? Is the intent to get through the day by trying to lighten an oppressive situation, or is the intent to be a jolly bully?
- What impact might this joking have on the clinician? Is it the type of joking that helps clinicians open up to difficult experiences or frees them from intolerable burdens? Or is it the type of joking that cuts clinicians off from experiences or patients that healthy clinicians should be able to engage with?
- How often does the health care provider joke like this? If a doctor is joking about patients and death constantly, then (even if each can be justified individually) does she need help expanding her range of coping mechanisms? Or is this joking part of an ongoing pattern (say, of objectifying vulnerable patients) that suggests deeper provider biases?
David and his colleagues scattered across the country after residency, but in the fifteen years that passed before he told me the tip joke, they talked about the night the delivery boy died several times. The whole thing made them sad for years, he said. “Wasn’t that terrible?” they’d ask each other on the phone. “How could we eat the food that poor kid dropped?”
In the process of trying to do good, did they become bad? I do not think so.
To me, the butt of the doctors’ tip joke is not the patient. It’s death. The residents fought death with all they had, and death won. Patient care was not harmed—the patient in this case had received the best medical care they could deliver, and he was dead. It’s hard to imagine the joke hardening these residents toward a type of patient he represents (delivery personnel?) in the future. The neighborhood’s staggering rates of crime and poverty might represent an external obstacle upsetting the residents, but residents are usually powerless to alter that type of structural factor.
I think the motivation for telling the joke was to integrate this terrible event and get through the shift. This teenager lost his life bringing these young doctors dinner. “How much you think we ought to tip him?” is a macabre summary of all that’s owed in this world and all that can never be repaid. And it looks forward—it’s a moving-on question. In a situation that horrific and absurd, a joke is the rock you throw after the bad guy’s already gone—an admission of loss, and a promise to fight again another day.
It’s important that the tip joke was told in an empty area with no family, friends, or other patients who could be harmed by overhearing. I’m usually a fan of sunshine tests and total disclosure, so I find the idea of secrecy as an ethical plus startling. But when a compassionate professional gets overwhelmed, gallows humor may be a psychic survival instinct, and that’s why it is not an abuse of patient trust when it’s done backstage and for the right reasons. Something that looks maleficent toward one patient may actually be an act of beneficence toward the patients who will come next. So yes—if the delivery boy were my son and I heard the joke, I would want to tear their eyes out. But if I was the person in the next ambulance, hurtling toward their emergency room after my car wreck, my heart attack, my rape, I’d be glad they made that joke. Because they needed to laugh before they could eat, and they needed to eat to be at their best when it was my turn.
David is a brilliant, compassionate physician who will serve patients his whole life, so I told him two things about the tip joke: I’m glad he did what he needed to do to treat every patient he’d see that night. And I’m glad it still bothers him. Because it’s good to carry that tension that tells you when you’re on thin ice. When a terrible joke is the only bridge between horror and necessity, gallows humor can be a show of respect for the work that lies ahead. So tell your jokes. Tell them somewhere I cannot hear. Then treat me well when we’re together.
For those interested, the article is free if you register with the website. They have free limited access to certain articles.