Humour in health-care interactions: a risk worth taking

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Humour is a complex, dynamic phenomenon that mainly occurs in social situations between two or more people. Most humour research reviews rehearsed as opposed to spontaneous humour and rarely review the patients' perspective.


We explore patients' perspectives on the use of humour in health care. We discuss the asymmetrical and divergent humour use between patients and clinical nurse specialists and posit nurses' approaches to risk as a contributing factor.


A constructivist grounded theory collated researcher-provoked (interviews, observation, field notes, pre-and post-interaction audio diaries) and non-researcher-provoked data (naturally occurring interactions) over 18 months. This paper is based upon four patient focus groups. A constant comparison approach to data collection and analyses was applied using interpretative and illustrative frameworks that balanced what was ‘known’ and ‘unknown’ about humour.

Setting and participants

Patients were recruited from four patient–peer groups. Three audio-taped (n = 20) and one observed focus group interactions (n = 12) were undertaken at the groups' regular meeting places.


Patients hold a broad appreciation of humour and recognize it as being evident in subtle and nuanced forms. Patients wish health-care staff to initiate and reciprocate humour.


A chasm exists between what patients apparently want with regard to humour use in health-care interactions and what actually transpires. Initiating humour involves risk, and risk-taking requires a degree of self-esteem and confidence. Nurses are, arguably, risk-averse and have low self-esteem. Future research could review confidence and self-esteem markers with observed humour use in nurses and their interactions across a range of specialities.

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