Language matters: towards an understanding of silence and humour in medical education


Lorelei Lingard, Room H112, Health Sciences Addition, London, Ontario N6A 5C1, Canada. Tel: 00 1 519 661 2111 (ext. 88999); E-mail:


Objectives  This paper considers the state of the science regarding language matters in medical education, with particular attention to two informal language practices: silence and humour. Silence and humour pervade clinical training settings, although we rarely attend explicitly to them.

Methods  This paper considers the treatment of these topics in our field to date and introduces a selection of the scholarship on silence and humour from other fields, including philosophy, sociology, anthropology, linguistics and rhetoric. Particular attention is paid to distilling the theoretical and methodological possibilities for an elaborated research agenda around silence and humour in medical education.

Results  These two language practices assume a variety of forms and serve a range of social functions. Episodes of silence and humour are intimately tied to their relational and institutional contexts. Power often figures centrally, although not predictably.

Conclusions  A rich theoretical and methodological basis exists on which to elaborate a research agenda around silence and humour in medical education. Such research promises to reveal more fully the contributions of silence and humour to socialisation in clinical training settings.