Humor is a way to get information about each other.
How we evoke and respond to it says so much about how comfortable we are with ourselves and how flexible, open and fun we will be with others. That’s helpful information if you are thinking of collaborating with someone – or even considering whether to get to know them better. “A well-developed sense of humor is the pole that adds balance to your step as you walk the tightrope of life,” wrote William Arthur Ward.
Every relationship has bumpy moments. Humor can be quicker than praise to smooth them out. Humorless people make the bumbs bigger. “A person without a sense of humor is like a wagon without springs,” wrote Henry Ward Beecher, “jolted by every pebble in the road.”
Unfortunately I don’t know how to be funny nor have a humor-evoking face like Ricky Gervais – yet I am one of the first to laugh when others are. Us “first responders” to friction can start what researchers call a laughter cascade to spur the emotional contagion that gets others laughing. Once I broke out laughing in a packed movie theatre only to hear someone yell out, to my mortification, “Kare – glad to hearing you’re enjoying it.”
“Humor does not rescue us from unhappiness,” wrote Mason Cooley (or from arguments I would add), “but enables us to move back from it a little.”
Yet humor is a two-sided sword – it can either cut and divide or unify – bring people closer like “a rubber sword – it allows you to make a point without drawing blood,” wrote Mary Hirsch.
Why inject unifying humor into a situation?
• Because it’s the best way to get us in relaxation mode – and begin to bond. We become less fearful or tense.
• That’s when we are most likely to like each other, bring out our better sides – and be productive and creative together. “If you can get someone to laugh with you, they will be more willing to identify with you, listen to you. It parts the waters,” said Robert Orben. As we lighten up we become more playful – which can make us productive if we need to be – and happier.
• Humor aimed at oneself is disarming – as when Chris Pronger answered a reporter’s questions, when Sandra Bullock referred to “us old people” and when President Obama said, “in mock dismay, ‘Don’t be cheering when I say that.’
• Humor diffuses tension. Werner von brown recalled that when astronaut John Glenn was strapped into his seat before take-off, dryly remarked, “Oh my god, I’m sitting on a pile of stuff created by the lowest cost bidder.”
– Making us popular as the most popular cat on Twitter has discovered.
• Shared laughter keeps relationships fresh and interesting. “All emotional sharing builds strong and lasting relationship bonds, but sharing laughter and play adds joy, vitality, and resilience.”
• The one thing “shared by mass murderers, felony drunk drivers, starving children, head banging caged laboratory animals, anxious overworked students, and most reptiles. They don’t play… What do most Nobel Laureates, historically renowned creative artists, successful multi-career entrepreneurs and animals of superior intelligence have in common? They are full of play throughout their lives,” wrote Stuart Brown.
So what actually makes us laugh? Researchers have found just three clues: incongruity, superiority, and the pattern of three. We do know that we who laugh last – why not laugh more together?