PORTSMOUTH, England — Black humour, drawn from shared experiences, helps 'glue' ambulance crews and police officers together, with firefighters likely to be on the receiving end of the jokes, according to new research.
Dr. Sarah Charman, of the University of Portsmouth's Institute of Criminal Justice Studies, examined the role of dark humour in the workplace of ambulance crews and police officers and found it provides comfort and creates a bond that crosses the occupational divide.
She said: 'Emergency workers frequently find themselves in unpleasant and unpredictable situations at odds with the heroic status and image presented in television dramas.
'They regularly deal with death or near-death. They face messy and mortifying situations the rest of us never have to encounter.'
Humour acts as social glue and what makes one person laugh can make someone else recoil, she said. Shared humour requires a degree of shared experience.
'By normalising a situation through humour, a stressful encounter can be made more manageable - humour allows people to control feelings of fear or vulnerability,' she said.
'For these people, it is often a case of if you didn't laugh, you'd cry. Both have a tension-reducing effect but it's not socially acceptable for professionals doing their job to cry.'
The unexpected finding of the research was that while all three emergency services enjoy a camaraderie and mutual respect, firefighters are often not included and are even the target of jokes, being referred to as 'water fairies' and 'drip stands'.
According to the research findings, which incorporated the views of 45 ambulance staff and police officers, firefighters 'sleep on the job', 'are fed on the job', 'cut car roofs off unnecessarily' and 'hose away vital evidence'. The fact firefighters tend to be held in high esteem by the public, especially women, was also mentioned.
One police officer said: 'You could say we're not ramming it down people's throats that we rescued a cat out of a tree.'
The humour directed at firefighters was, nonetheless, seen as light-hearted banter and, as one ambulance crew member said: 'Ultimately, we are all protective of each other, we just don't like to admit it.'
Dr Charman said one of the reasons for the apparent divide might be ambulance crew and police officers have more in common. Although their role and function is ultimately very different, both have jobs that rely on patient, calm communication skills.
She said: 'What makes academics marking undergraduate essays laugh; what makes shop assistants dealing with customers laugh; and what makes ambulance crews and police officers dealing with the public laugh is culturally defined - it is based on shared experiences at work and the nature of the work.
'Risque humour demands a high degree of trust and confidence between colleagues and has the potential to be career threatening, but the humour between ambulance crews and police officers is seen by them as unremittingly positive.'
The camaraderie emerged on the job. In interviews they used phrases about the other which included, 'in tune with', 'like-minded', 'have a natural affinity with', 'reciprocal respect', 'friendly' and 'fun'.
Shared gallows humour was the single most important factor in the work they did together and was mentioned by nearly all those interviewed, who described it as 'inappropriate', 'warped', 'bizarre' and 'slightly sick'. Both parties also described a tacit mutual understanding, an unspoken agreement to not use such humour with friends, family or members of the public.
Dr Charman said a mutually defined 'joke book' written for and by members reinforces combined cultural identity; acts as glue in a way outsiders might see as trivial; helps build a strong reliance on each other's skills and qualities in difficult situations; and fosters a strong degree of trust and rapport.
She added that further research was needed to give a voice to the firefighters, to understand their position within this tripartite relationship.
The research is published in the International Journal of Sociology and Social Policy.