May is all about celebration and recognition here at JNJ: with Nurses Week just wrapping up (did you get your Cinnabon?) it’s a good time to take a moment to reflect on the relationship between humor and celebration.
Earlier this month, I had the privilege of speaking with Loretta LaRoche. One of the things she said that really jumped out at me was the fact that women (and look around: nursing is still predominantly a female field) are socialized to complain. That’s how we interact with each other; that’s how we communicate.
Changing that dynamic to incorporate more positive conversations — namely, celebrating and recognizing the good work we do every day — can be difficult. We’re used to complaining. We’re good at it. We know how to carry on about everything that went wrong yesterday, that’s going wrong right now, and that’s likely to go wrong tomorrow.
Celebrating, on the other hand, we’re not used to. We’ve created the mindset that celebration and recognition are ‘special’ — so special that they’re reserved for a few awkward moments jammed into a semi-annual celebration. Looking for and pointing out the positive is not something we’re used to doing.
Humor Can Help!
Humor can help us change the conversation. Laughter is disruptive: it signals a break in the conversation. Think about it. Much of what makes us laugh is sudden, abrupt, unexpected. We chuckle when there’s a change — when we don’t get what we expected, but something different, surprising (and hopefully better — nursing does seem to have more than its fair share of unpleasant surprises!)
The disruptive, conversation altering aspects of laughter can derail a train of negativity — exactly what’s needed to facilitate the change toward a more positive direction. Consider using humor to ‘break up’ a negative conversation and then switch gears, using the moment to praise or compliment a peer. It doesn’t need to be over the top — we’re so accustomed to a lack of praise and recognition in our daily life that a simple, “Hey, you did a good job there’ can transform someone’s entire day.
Humor Gives Permission
Humor creates conversational safe spaces: we can say things when we’re joking that we wouldn’t ordinarily say. Knowing that the result is likely laughter — after all, no one is going to take a joke seriously — provides a format to ‘try out’ sentiments you wouldn’t ordinarily attempt.
For example, it’s easier (and may feel safer) to say, “Hey muscles! You must have been working out lately!” to the nurse who helped you with a difficult patient transfer than to address the issue directly by saying, “Hey, that lady was too heavy for me to move alone, and I’m glad I had your help.” This is particularly true when addressing a nurse you don’t know very well: humor can serve as an ice-breaker when meeting new people.
Humor is (Generally) Positively Received
By and large, people love to laugh. Yes, there will be a few stinkers who wouldn’t crack a grin if you paid them $50 for it. But overall, humor is well received. Laughter makes us feel better, physically and emotionally, and the majority of people seek out opportunities to laugh.
Praise and recognition, on the other hand, make many people uncomfortable. We’re not used to hearing positive things about ourselves, and depending upon our cultural backgrounds, we may have even been socialized to never accept positive commentary. Considering our overall goal here is to boost the morale of our colleagues and peers and create a more positive working environment, we don’t want to actively pursue a strategy that makes people feel bad.
Wrapping praise and recognition, celebration and cheer into humor takes some of the uncomfortable aspects of hearing positive commentary away. Additionally, if something does make someone feel awkward, they can easily choose to ‘dismiss’ it as just a joke.
Using humor to deliver praise and recognition to your peers is a powerful, effective strategy. However, humor can bite you if you’re not careful: make a point to focus on therapeutic humor. This is humor that lifts up and makes people feel better. Sarcasm and snark are very popular forms of humor — and they can certainly address some of the bleaker moments of nursing — but they’re not ideal delivery vehicles for positive messages!