What should you do when things get tense in a group, and you’re tempted to make snide comments or worse? Why, turn to humor, of course. It can crack the fractious mood, drop the growing wall between us and even bring us closer. Yet only the right kind of humor can strengthen our connection over time. An MIT study found that people demonstrate humor in one of three ways:
1. Divisive: Humor that is insulting to or about others.
Example: A music reviewer at the newspaper, Record Mirror, once wrote “Few people know that the CIA is planning to cripple Iran by playing the Bee Gee’s ‘ESP’ album on special loudspeakers secretly parachuted into the country.”
There are exceptions. For example, some apparently divisive humor is often unifying because of the nearly universal view of the organization you are knocking, and when you cite their own words to poke fun. For example, a reporter cited this from a letter her received from the IRS: “Please provide the date of your death.”
Sometimes the institution sets itself up for a double shot of humor. Here’s an excerpt from a Correction Notice in the Ely Standard, a British newspaper: “We apologize for the error in last week’s paper in which we stated that Mr. Arnold Dogbody was a defective in the police force. We meant, of course, that Mr. Dogbody is a detective in the police farce.”
Caution: Even with friends where you think they will understand, divisive humor can be hurtful. As an anonymous humorist once wrote in a list of “Rules of Combat”: “The only thing more accurate than incoming enemy fire is incoming friendly fire.”
Most of us probably 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 drolly wrote, “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall down an open manhole cover and die.”
2. Humorless: Appears to have no sense of humor. This kind of person prefers to focus on doing the task, being good, and other “productive behavior.”
People who exhibited no humor at all are more likely than people in the other two categories to be most harsh and unforgiving in their judgments of others and more likely to see the world in “right/wrong” categories, thus the least able to be accepted as team players.
That MIT study I mentioned earlier found that divisive humor often seems the funniest, at least at first, because we can feel superior in making fun of someone else. Some of the funniest lines are insulting yet, like a scalpel, they cut fast and deep inside even the thickest skin. Adlai Stevenson once said, “He who throws mud gets dirty.”
Conversely, unifying humor is the most surefire way to break tension or conflict. One of my favorite kinds is when people 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 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.”
Numbers are not my strong suit. After I had added up a budget on a hand calculator and come up with three different totals, my business partner once quipped, “There are three kinds of people: those who can count, and those who can’t.”
Here’s an anonymous saying: “I had an IQ test. The results came back negative.”
Other kinds of unifying humor can kid about a common situation. Here’s a bumper sticker emailed to me by one of the subscribers to my online Say It Better newsletter: “Montana – At least our cows are sane!”
Or the human condition: “God pulled an all-nighter on the sixth day.”
I saw this emblazoned on the tee shirt of a very rotund man coming out of a San Diego beach shop: “The problem with the gene pool is that there is no lifeguard.”
You can find still other kinds of unifying humor simply by reading what is around you. For stating the obvious, look at some newspaper headlines:
“Study Finds Sex, Pregnancy Link” – Cornell Daily Sun
“Lack of Brains Hinders Research” – The Columbus Dispatch
Unifying humor is thus the most surefire way to break tension or conflict. People who used the first kind of humor were more likely to not keep agreements than people in the other two categories.
Others use unifying humor to recover from their use of divisive humor: “People who think they know everything are a great annoyance to those of us who do.”
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.
Sometimes the lubricant of dry humor can lighten a dark situation. I walked through the pouring rain with my friend Hank who was eager to show me the new home he bought at a great price. When he opened the front door we saw water dripping from the entryway ceiling and he promptly said, “Every silver lining has a cloud.”
“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 appearing victim-like.
Hint: Make your connective, sometimes self-deprecating humor the bridge to diverse others.