De rol van (Zwarte) Humor in de first responder cultuur

Ik mis nog steeds de humor die we hadden in Blauw. En ook mijn ambulance collega’s kunnen er wat van. Maar wat is humor nu eigenlijk en welke rol speelt het in de first responder cultuur? Ik ging in gesprek met Karin Dangermond, onderzoeker bij het Nederlands Instituut voor Openbare Veiligheid en promovenda aan de Universiteit voor Humanistiek.

Haar werk richt zich op de menselijke kant van de brandweer. Belangrijke onderwerpen zijn leiderschap, organisatie en cultuur van de brandweer, en werving en behoud van niet-carrière brandweerlieden. Momenteel rondt zij haar promotieonderzoek af naar de rol van brandweercultuur bij het omgaan met kritieke incidenten.

De informatie uit deze QA is gebaseerd op het artikel “If it stops, then I’ll start worrying.” Humor als onderdeel van de brandweercultuur, specifiek als onderdeel van het omgaan met kritieke incidenten (Dangermond et al., 2022).

Ik stelde haar de volgende vragen:

  • Is there a definition of humor in the first responder literature?
  • What are the functions of humor in terms of ’team cohesion’ and ‘coping with critical incidents?
  • What forms of humor are there, and what is the meaning of ‘black humor’?
  • What are the negatives and positives of humor within a unit and is there any advice on how to deal with the negatives?
  • Is humor a personal trait or a skill to be learned and is humor important to ‘survive’ in a close-knit team?

Lees verder op mijn blog.

  1. Is there a definition of humor in the first responder literature?

Humor has numerous definitions. An operational definition of humor is: “a message, image, or visual that induces heightened arousal, smiling, or a laughter from an intended audience” (McBride & Ball, 2022, p.2). When coping with critical incidents, humor is described as black humor, also referred to as dark, gallows or cynical humor (Rowe & Regehr, 2010). Black humor concerns sinister topics such as death, disease, injury, and disfigurement which are discussed humorously with the aim of expressing the absurdity, callousness, and cruelty of the world (Willinger et al., 2017).

  • What are the functions of humor in terms of ’team cohesion’ and ‘coping with critical incidents?

Humor is an important part of the culture of first responders (Charman, 2013). It plays a role in building group cohesion (Greatbatch & Clark, 2003) as well as defining group boundaries (Kuipers, 2009): only group members have the proper information (prior knowledge) to understand implicit references.

A typical feature of the fire service culture is that it is an emotional culture, one in which the collective emotions of a group are key (O’Neill & Rothbard, 2017). As part of this emotional culture, joviality – “markedly good-humored, especially as evidenced by jollity and conviviality” (O’Neill & Rothbard, 2017, p. 81) – plays an important role in the assumptions, values, norms, rituals, artefacts and practices of firefighters. Humor is a significant part of the daily routines of the fire service culture (Thurnell-Read & Parker, 2008). This is also partly a joking culture: “a set of humorous references that are known to members of the group to which members can refer and that serve as the basis of further interaction” (Fine & De Soucey, 2005, p.1).

Firefighters rely on each other in dangerous situations, which is why they test each other at the fire station. Through humor, their mental weaknesses, physical strength, and resilience are exposed and, especially for career firefighters, humor is used to prevent boredom during (quiet) 24-hour shifts (Ward & Winstanley, 2006). According to firefighters there are various reasons why they thought humor played an important role as part of the fire service culture and which functions humor serves (Dangermond et al., 2022):

  • Firstly, humor produces a good atmosphere in the crew. A good balance and variation between serious firefighting and rescue activities on the one hand and light-hearted informal conversations on the other is valued. “Me saving someone doesn’t concern me personally, it’s my job. But the laughter here, that makes me feel happy”.
  • Secondly, it was indicated that, in the fire service, humor is seen as a means of communication. Jokes are used to indirectly convey a message: “Often in the form of a joke, but always with a kernel of truth”. Using humor in this way enables the informal hierarchy (positions) in a crew or brigade to be influenced. An example of this humor is jokes about mistakes people have made. “Like, ‘hey, you couldn’t do it, could you?’ It is stated as a joke, but in this way the others will find out and you’ll descend to a lower position in the pecking order. That’s their intention”. This may be due to conflict avoidance (because the paradigm states that conflicts do not belong in a well-functioning team), yet participants find it difficult to explain why they communicate their message in the form of a joke. “So that you won’t have to comment on it directly. Ignorance as to how to communicate it differently I think, or maybe not wanting to start the conversation, being afraid of the other person’s response. Maybe”.
  • Thirdly, humor is used in order to test each other: “Teasing each other in a fun way; it keeps us all alert, you get to know each other, it’s about resilience and endurance. You know if you can rely on each other”.
  • Fourthly, humor relates to self-mockery: deliberately making jokes about oneself. For example, because someone doesn’t want to be the target of someone else’s joke, like this participant: “If I beat them to it, they’ll be done. I make the joke myself, so that they can’t do it anymore. They won’t get the laughs because you were ahead of them”. A lack of acceptance by the group also plays a role in self-mockery: “He’s not accepted and he senses that too. He’s always joking about it, so that others will not make those jokes”.
  • The fifth and final reason given is that black humor plays an important role in coping with critical incidents.

Black humor is a coping strategy for first responders (Gross, 2009), especially when confronted during their work with incidents that relate to personal loss and a threat to their well-being. Firefighters use black humor to express their feelings, to ensure social support by developing group cohesion, and to distance themselves from the situation to enable effective action (Dangermond et al., 2022; Rowe & Regehr, 2010).

  • What forms of humor are there, and what is the meaning of ‘black humor’?

Ruch et al. (2018) proposed a model of eight comic styles: fun, humor, nonsense, wit, irony, satire, sarcasm, and cynicism. Not all types of humor are equally effective in processing critical incidents though (Strick, 2021).

Firefighters have experienced that black humor (e.g. in the form of puns and rituals) reduces the impact of negative experiences. Black humor is used as a safe way to express feelings and to obtain social support. It also enables firefighters to distance themselves from a situation (Rowe & Regehr, 2010). Firefighters have approach and avoidance motives for using humor, primarily for reasons related to coping with an incident. Lastly, not only making jokes oneself but listening to immediate colleagues’ jokes also helped people cope, mainly because this positively influences the group atmosphere and creates unity (Dangermond et al., 2022). This is an important finding, as previous studies show that informal peer support reduces the impact of critical incidents (Varvel et al., 2007).

A joke’s timing is important in the context of coping (Dangermond et al., 2022). Firefighters do not always use black humor collectively when coping because of the possible differences in how some crew members perceive an incident as critical (whereas others do not); and this leads to different needs as regards coping with the incident. Another insight from this study is that there is no black humor at all with certain critical incidents. This mainly concerns incidents involving children and young adults where the firefighters felt helpless. In such situations, the use of humor would cross personal boundaries and break unwritten rules. Humor can help identify problems; if, after a critical incident, no jokes are made by the crew and/or if a crew member of the crew does not laugh about the jokes, it is usually a sign for the crew commander to pay extra attention to coping (Dangermond et al., 2022).

  • What are the negatives and positives of humor within a unit and is there any advice on how to deal with the negatives?

Although humor typically creates unity within the fire service crew or brigade, firefighters also noted the downside of humor. Several firefighters felt excluded as a consequence of humor in various ways (Dangermond et al., 2022).

  • Firstly, and in line with other studies (Yoder & Aniakudo, 1996), humor (in the form of pranks) is used as a mechanism to exclude fellow firefighters who do not conform to the dominant norm at the brigade (such as gays, lesbians, women and firefighters with an immigrant background).
  • Secondly, it appears that firefighters who are never the target of a joke do not feel part of the group.
  • Thirdly, this is the first study to point out that there are different circumstances due to which some firefighters – contrary to a majority of their crew – do not always perceive humor as funny and thus are (or feel) excluded from the crew. This is particularly true if they fail to sufficiently recognize implicit references; the dominant group dynamics exceed one’s personal boundaries with respect to making a joke and/or joining in the laughter; the target of a joke cannot laugh about it because of the timing, content and/or frequency of the joke; and humor in the form of self-mockery is used as a defense mechanism. Since firefighters do not always distance themselves from the group or respond in a socially desirable way if they are able to, humor that crosses boundaries is not always identified as such. Hence humor can bring unity to a crew yet can also divide crew members.

Confronting colleagues after experiencing is not only the group’s responsibility, it’s also specifically the crew commanders’ responsibility. To quote a crew commander: “Discrimination is a difficult issue. We’ve discussed it, everyone should feel at home. Joking is OK, but this shouldn’t be the norm. It’s still quite tricky. Some people get it; others say ‘don’t be a killjoy, it’s just a joke’”.

Firefighters use humor to ensure social support by developing group cohesion (Rowe & Regehr, 2010). Given the importance of social support and especially the role of humor in coping with critical incidents, the strengthening of social cohesion and support among fire service crews should be promoted (see also Sattler et al., 2014). However, firefighters are reluctant to discuss the role of firefighters’ humor or black humor. This closed attitude has led to a lack of understanding of this important coping strategy in the outside world. Providing information on the role of humor in the fire service culture in general, and specifically when coping with critical incidents, enables managers and mental health professionals to gain a better understanding of this unique work culture, and assistance and aftercare to be better attuned to the needs of firefighters.

  • Is humor a personal trait or a skill to be learned and is humor important to ‘survive’ in a close-knit team?

It is not only the joke itself that matters, but also the person who makes the joke (the joker), the person who is the subject of the joke and their reaction (the target), and the person(s) who are present during the joke (the audience) (Dangermond et al., 2022).

Most firefighters have a colleague in their crew who takes the initiative to make jokes, “a first-class clown”. An important condition for the acceptance of humor is that the joker is from one’s own crew or brigade. It was often mentioned how jokers carefully considered who to tell the joke to and the possible reactions this might produce. “I pay attention to who’s in the group. With some of them you factor in that what goes around comes around”. And people in leadership positions are faced by a dilemma: should they joke, given their positions?

Firefighters are the target of a joke at one time or another. According to firefighters who feel that humor is an integral part of the fire service culture, it is an unwritten rule that colleagues are expected to be able to take a joke (Dangermond et al., 2022). Humor is often considered to be a selection criterion (test). “That’s the culture in the fire service. Jokes will be made. Sometimes you’re the laughingstock and the next time someone else is, and you just grin and bear it. Otherwise, I think you should go find another job”. Firefighters indicated it is important that people handle this in a light-hearted way. A ‘suitable’ reaction is “to just go along with the joke”. Someone who does not react appropriately will soon be the target again. “They do have a radar for that. If you don’t handle jokes well, they’re bound to make them”. The importance of reciprocity was also mentioned several times in this context: “If I don’t want to be the subject of a joke, I shouldn’t make any myself. That’s why I don’t experience this as negative or annoying”. There are extenuating circumstances that keep someone out of jokes way temporarily, especially if they are having problems at home. “One member of our crew is going through a divorce. He’s really having a hard time, and has told the crew so. We keep it in mind. No bad jokes about this. Well, maybe a bit”. Several firefighters said that being the target of a joke, if within proportions, was considered to be proof of being a fully-fledged member of the group. Never being the subject of a joke is actually perceived to be a problem. “Not having the mickey taken out of you is worse than if they’re taking the mickey out of you, because the mickey-taking actually means they have a certain bond with you”.


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