Humor in the Office

Aug. 1, 2008
A patient of mine, Lupe, came in recently for her first ever cleaning. She was a middle-aged woman, primarily speaking Spanish.

by Suzanne Hubbard, RDH

A patient of mine, Lupe, came in recently for her first ever cleaning. She was a middle-aged woman, primarily speaking Spanish. As she sat down, the broken English words tumbled out of her mouth. "I scared, you know, scared of pain?" I have very little background in speaking Spanish, but I fervently tried to calm her using the words I had learned from a previous hygiene position where Spanish was the primary language. I kept repeating the Spanish words for "I am sorry for your pain!" while placing my hand gently on her shoulder. Tears welled up in her eyes and I chastised myself, thinking, "Great, I made her cry!"

She burst out laughing and laughed so hard until tears were streaming down her face.

She said, "You say in Spanish, ‘I sorry for your pregnancy.' I think you mean I sorry for your pain. I no pregnant!"

Somehow, I had mixed the words pain and pregnancy. We both laughed so hard during that appointment. As I got up to walk her out when we were finished, I said, "So when are you due again?" We laughed once more.

Hygiene, ironically, is a funny business. I don't think I have ever met so many type A personalities in my life. Typically, we're structured, detailed, goal-oriented, rigid, and purposeful. These are all great qualities, but where does humor find its place among the attributes?

Ask some hygienists if they have "fun" in their jobs and several will emphatically say no. Humor doesn't show its face too often in our type of business. Sometimes it's because of the personalities we possess. Other times it has to do with the routines we shoulder.

More importantly, I believe, it's because we know the seriousness of our positions. We know that every day we are enlightening our patients to a world of disease and its prevention. It's serious stuff! However, I have personally witnessed repeatedly how humor holds a significant place in our offices. Without humor, a job grows stale, a career becomes boring, hygiene becomes monotonous, relationships can fizzle, and life becomes overly serious.

It's important that we create an environment within our offices that allows for appropriate fun and silliness. By appropriate, I mean professional, upbeat, and not using off-color jokes or those meant to harm or demean others. Not too long ago I sat around talking to several hygienists. I made the comment that when I use my prophy angle on a patient with a shallow floor of the mouth, it can become the perfect storm when the prophy paste mixes with the saliva and causes severe spattering. I joked that I wanted to post a sign in my operatory that stated, "Warning, hygienist hard at work!"

The conversation grew quite serious when one of the hygienists said, "In all my years of hygiene, I am glad to say that I have never had prophy paste spatter across the patient's face."

I didn't know whether to question her or to honor her with the Esther Wilkins Hygiene Award. I cannot tell you the number of times that I have had that happen to me. It's not that I mean to have it happen — it just does. Moreover, it's the first thing that my patients typically laugh about. What I realized from our conversation that day is that it's OK to allow humor to creep in now and again; it doesn't negate our role as good, experienced clinicians.

We also have to remember that patients, such as Lupe, come to our offices with tremendous fears. Humor not only dissipates fears, but studies have shown humor and laughter actually relieve stress and anxiety. Imagine how far that will go when helping patients overcome their fears of dentistry. Hygienists are on the front lines of being able to accomplish this feat.

Humor doesn't have to be forced and shouldn't be rehearsed! It can be something as simple as telling an appropriate joke, or telling a funny story about your great Aunt Edna. Many times, in this profession, I have found that humor typically finds me. I gladly welcome and embrace it when it does happen, knowing that it provides a break — a small but appreciated diversion from the routine. Humor is a natural process of letting go of perfection and being able to live in the moment.

Relationships within the office environment can change through humor. Our office had become particularly stressful one month as the economy and other factors had caused a ripple effect through our office. Cancellations were the norm and spotty appointments meant less than full paychecks. We all felt this sense of dread and despair.

Our office manager came to us one morning and started out our day with a humorous quote and a funny story. As this continued, we noticed how the dynamics of the relationships within our office started to completely change. Teamwork was established more readily, we found ourselves laughing more even in the face of adversity. We started letting go of inhibiting expectations, unrealistic measures, and allowed the fragrance of humor to fill our office. Patients were coming in and noticed the difference. One patient stated, "I love coming here because all of you laugh and have a good time, and you all seem to like what you do. I've been in other offices where the atmosphere is sterile." The evidence of humor was now noticed by our patients. It wasn't inappropriate, obnoxious, overdone, or unprofessional, and the patient benefited — he left in a good mood!

I recently went through the line at a grocer's and dealt with a cashier who was having a horrible day. Not stopping to say "Hi" or "How are you?" she slammed the groceries into the bag. Her less-than-happy tone really made an impression on me. Do I ever treat my patients like this? I sure hope not. Have you ever had someone treat you in such a way that it taints and sours your entire day? Humor has the opposite effect. You can change people's outlook, vision, and even their hope by inspiring them with laughter. Whether with patients, co-workers, friends, or family, humor always has an appropriate place. Let go and try it sometime!

About the Author

Suzanne Hubbard, RDH, works in Greeley, Colo., at GB Dental Clinic.