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How Humorless People Affect Us

Like scent, humor has extremely offensive or captivating effects on us, depending on the kind.  In the past two posts I described two kinds, unifying and divisive. The third is humorless. Are you? 

Frank Tyger suggest that, “The ultimate test of whether you posses a sense of humor is your reaction when someone tells you you don’t.” How do we get that way? “By starving emotions we become humorless, rigid and stereotyped; by repressing them we become literal, reformatory and holier-than-thou; encouraged, they perfume life; discouraged; they poison it, warms Joseph Collins. 

Without humor it is hard to step back to see a situation in a brighter way or come to terms with it – or to hope. “There is a sorrow in the seriousness of humorous people. They do not easily find among ideas or purposes a place of rest.  The courage in their eyes is wistful.  If they don’t even recognize sarcasm, they may lack higher cognitive skills.

A sense of humor can put you back in control. Instead of giving in to depression, a

Multiple Sclerosis patient remarked, ” One good thing about MS is I don’t have to worry about stirring my coffee anymore.”

Holocaust survivor, Victor Frankl said “I would never have made it if I could not have laughed. Laughing lifted me momentarily, out of this horrible situation, just enough to make it survivable.”

Apparently humorless people usually prefer to focus on getting the task done, being good  – or other “productive behavior.” The get upset when others joke or kid instead of moving ahead.

How does that behavior compare to the other two? Well, divisive humor is often the funniest, at least at first. In making fun of someone else, we can feel superior. Plus some of the funniest lines are insulting.  Like scalpels, they cut fast and deep into even the thickest skin.

An understated way to respond to someone who is shooting divisive humor “bullets” at others is to suggest, “Never draw fire; it irritates the people around you.” Or, when you feel you must escalate, paraphrase Adlai Stevens, “Those who throw mud often get dirty.”

Unifying humor is a surefire way to break tension or conflict – especially when the specific details spark an “aha” of instant near-universal recognition.

People who use divisive humor are more likely to not keep agreements than those who exhibit no humor or who use unifying humor.

People who exhibited no humor at all were more likely than those in the other two categories to be most harsh and unforgiving in their judgments of others. They are more likely to see the world in “right/wrong” categories, thus the least able to be accepted as team players.

Most of us rationalize our use of cutting humor as harmless fun. After all, it is usually a matter of perspective, that is who is getting skewered. As Mel Brooks once wrote, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall down an open manhole cover and die.”

Unifying humor is healing and enables us to see the larger picture where hope is possible. Charlie Chaplin once said, “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up but a comedy in long shot.”

How Do You Use Humor?

Humorist, Allen Klein began writing about humor as healing when his wife was diagnosed with cancer. He offers this story: “When the naturalist William Beebe used to visit President Theodore Roosevelt at Sagamore Hill, both would take an evening stroll after dinner. Then one or the other would go through a customary ritual. He would look up at the stars saying, ‘That is the Spiral Galaxy of Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It is 750,000 light-years away. It consists of one hundred billion suns, each larger than our sun.’

Then silence followed. Finally, one of them would say, “Now I think we are small enough. Let’s go to bed.’ A little perspective, like a little humor, goes a long way.”

Consider the times when you’ve simply goofed, made a “silly mistake” or otherwise didn’t do the smartest thing in the situation. You have a rich reservoir of such stories from which you can draw. Have them ready in your mind to tell when you want to lighten someone else’s load and bring them closer. Those are the situations you want to share with someone when they are in an unfamiliar situation, feeling insecure, just made a mistake or feeling uncomfortable for some other reason.

Sometimes light, dry humor can brighten a dark situation. My friend Stevie Weir walked through the rain to open the door of his eagerly awaited new home to find water dripping from the entryway ceiling and said, “Every silver lining has a cloud.”

When you make a mistake you might offer this facetious advice to poke fun at yourself and your teammates, “Fool-proof implies a finite number of fools.”

“In life, as in art, it is often a matter of knowing where to draw the line.” If you overuse self-deprecating humor be mindful that you may wind up looking victim-like.

Every humorist needs an audience, and I, who can’t remember punch lines, can often play that role. My father is a natural storyteller and punster. He gets me laughing when I take myself too seriously. As my friend Adama says, “The shortest distance between two puns is a straight line” and I’m often that line.

Unexpected Humor Can Crack a Mood

Some of my favorite kinds of humor are when people can juxtapose two apparently unlikely images to make a point. In a tense meeting where I was attempting to coach the engineers in a company startup on how to describe their complex wireless portal product to potential investors in a way that was understandable, their usually patient lawyer finally broke the tension by saying, “I’m as confused as a baby in a topless bar.”

Some people may never offer a direct apology for past behavior but will sidle into atonement by using wry humor, such as, “Procrastination means never having to say you’re sorry.”

Inject Laughter Into Your Daily Life

Move to a new chapter that is the adventure story you want for your life.  Here’s one way. What role do you want to play today?  Try on the underdeveloped, perhaps unexpected facet to your “character”? Alan Funt’s classic program, “Candid Camera” and subsequent knock-offs of that show can give you ideas.

As poor students in a fellowship program, eight of us used to form a spontaneous “live theatre” group on Friday nights for free entertainment and wound up learning a lot more about ourselves and each other. We assigned “roles” to each other and then walking separately into a busy bar in San Francisco to act them out with each other.

The rules? Each person could give three attributes to another person in the group. For example, one time I was to be a very shy, kindergarten teacher who was raised in a small North Dakota town the same night another person was designated as a rich, playboy law student from a rich, old line Philadelphia family. You can imagine the scenes that unfolded.

These days you can still watch Drew Carey’s hilarious improv show, “What’s My Line Anyway” and learn some new rules to create your own spontaneous “live theatre.” I’ve found those evenings offered unforgettably fun ways to let stress roll away and see new sides of friends I thought I knew well.

Alan Weiss has a funny list of suggestions for creating live theatre in an elevator ride. One suggestion: “Have a friend with you, but act like your friend is a complete stranger. After a while, turn to your friend and say, “Wanna trade?” and switch wallets or purses.

As Norman Cousins said, “He who laughs lasts.”  How do you use unifying humor?  

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