Understanding Why Patients Use Humor When They Talk To Nurses

I work in a neurologist’s office. We try to get really complete histories from every new patient but the patient I was working with, Mr. K, hadn’t checked anything on his intake paperwork. No history of heart disease, no high blood pressure, no cancer scares – not a thing. That’s so rare among our patients (Average Age 78!) that I had to ask him about it.

“Medical history?” He shrugged. “Can’t say there’s much. Of course, I’ve had amnesia as long as I can remember.”

This little grin pushed up the corners of Mr. K’s mouth, and his eyes suddenly started twinkling. I burst out laughing, and so did he. It turns out he did have a little bit of medical history, and he shared that with me after our laugh.

I was dropping off the file when one of the other nurses stopped me. “What was going on in there?”

I shared Mr. K’s joke. “I hate it when they try to be funny,” she said, rolling her eyes. “But they always feel like they have to.”

While I didn’t share my colleagues’ disdain for a quick quip, I did have to agree that there are some patients who seem to constantly be cracking jokes, making puns, or even doing impressions – one of my favorite patients does a Betty White you wouldn’t believe! – whatever it takes to make the nurse laugh. The question is: Why? Why do patients try to make the nurses laugh?

Reasons Patients Try To Make Nurses Laugh

Humor is a powerful social tool. We draw on the ability to laugh, and to make others laugh, in a number of situations. This is especially true when we’re in a place where we’re not exactly sure of ourselves. It’s important to remember that while we, as nurses, are relatively comfortable and at ease in the medical setting, that’s not necessarily true for our patients. The use of humor by patients allows them to:

Maintain Control

Being a patient means surrendering a lot of personal autonomy, at least temporarily. You’re told where to sit, what to wear, and to gracefully comply with being stuck, poked, and prodded. There’s an uneven power dynamic at play, even in the most aware therapeutic environments. This can make patients uncomfortable. Using humor is a way to exert some personal control in a situation where the patient feels relatively powerless. When Mr. K joked with me, he briefly stopped and changed the rhythm of what had been a fairly routine intake. For that moment, he was in charge.

Alleviate Anxiety

Humor has the power to comfort. Laughter can distract us from the fear we’re feeling. Patients can experience anxiety at any number of points through their time with us, and while we might more intuitively understand that anxiety at certain times – shortly before surgery, for example – the anxiety is equally as powerful when it’s triggered by something we perceive as unremarkable. No one really enjoys feeling anxious. Patients use humor in an effort to alleviate those feelings – and as the nurse, we’re the first, best, and often only audience available.

Establish A Bond

One of the first things we learn in this world is that life is easier for us if the people who surround us, especially those people who we’re dependent on them to any degree, like us. We tend to like the people who make us laugh – and our patients know this. Using humor creates a route for a patient to establish a bond with their nurse, creating alliances through the power of laughter.


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