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Use Humor to Defuse Tension, Befriend and Have More Fun

Humor requires a target. If you make a bulls-eye out of someone weaker, particularly if you initiate the attack, you look like a bully.  Take aim, instead, at the powerful. Or, rather than getting upset, consider yourself lucky when someone makes you a target first.

Because, as Isaac Asimov observed, “For a humane person, the put-down is most satisfactory and most easily greeted with pleasurable laughter when the person being put down has done something to invite it – in other words, if he has attacked.  Then it is lunge-and-riposte and at the riposte we can laugh with a clear conscience.” 

Poke Fun at Yourself

When one makes oneself the butt of the joke one demonstrates unifying humor. Self-deprecating people build trust, get heard and get ahead. They look comfortable with themselves – an endearing quality. Here are six examples:

1. All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy.

2. Sylvia’s mother gave this toast at her 60th birthday party: “Time may be a great healer, but it’s a lousy beautician.”

3.  Phyllis Diller said, “I know what got me into comedy… puberty!”

4.  Lily Tomlin, in her one-woman show, “The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe said “If love is the answer, could you please rephrase the question?”

5.  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.”

6. “I had an IQ test. The results came back negative.” ~ Jake Torkelsen

Defuse Anxiety

“Those oxygen masks on airplanes? I don’t think there’s really any oxygen. I think they’re just to muffle the screams.” – Rita Rudner

Kid About a Common Situation

The next best thing to solving a problem is finding some humor in it,” thought Frank Clark.  Hearing what’s funny in a group also enables one to instantly understand what isn’t safe to laugh at.  

When your humor highlights what we have in common, you and I feel more like “us.” Joking with co-workers builds bonds.

Women say they want someone who makes them laugh. Men want someone whom they can make laugh. 

The Harvard Business Review reported that executives with a sense of humor climb the corporate ladder more quickly and earn more money than their counterparts.”

“One hallmark of a great manager is a self-deprecating sense of humor,” according to a Half survey. Yet, we can take that finding with a grain of salt because people are much more likely to laugh at jokes made by their superiors than their inferiors, and in the presence of a person of high status, members of the same group will check whether the superior is laughing before laughing themselves. 

Sometimes (but not always), “if people are having fun, they’re going to work harder.”

Examples of unifying humor that tap into the universal “us” can pop up most anywhere:

• After the mad cow scare, a subscriber to my newsletter, mailed me this bumper sticker: “Montana – At least our cows are sane!”

• Commenting on the human condition: “God pulled an all-nighter on the sixth day.”

• I saw this emblazoned on the tee shirt of a rotund man coming out of a San Diego beach shop: “The problem with the gene pool is that there is no lifeguard.”

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

Lily Tomlin said, “Nobody is here without a reason. … I like a huge range of comedy but I always wanted my comedy to be more embracing of the species rather than debasing of it.”

For another humor-as-unifying experience, try a laughter yoga class.  “Laughter is not dissimilar to exercise,” explains professor Lee Berk. “It’s not going to cure someone of stage 3 cancer, but in terms of prevention it does make sense. In a sense, we have our own apothecary on our shoulders. Positive emotions such as laughter affect your biology.”

Evoke the Incongruous to Unite Others

A condemned spy was being led out at dawn in a pounding rain to be shot. As he and his guards stepped outside he spoke bitterly to them about the wet and cold, to which one guard replied, “What are you complaining about? We’ve got to march back.”

Dave Barry: “Never take a sleeping pill and a laxative on the same night.”

Paul Klee: “A line is a dot that went for a walk.”

Understanding how to hit the funny bone isn’t easy, even with these tips and examples. As E.B. White famously noted, “Analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog. The procedure kills the essence of both the frog and the funny — and then what’s the point?” 

Then there are those who appear to have no humor whatsoever.  Usually that lack covers other concerns.  What effect do they have on others?  Read about it in the next post.





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  1. Posted April 30, 2009 at 10:55 am | Permalink

    Aristotle was very clear on the principle of self-deprecation as a means to establishing ETHOS in his original Principles of Rhetoric.

  2. Posted May 1, 2009 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    As Frank suggests, there is little more useful than self-deprecation. Having lived in three different worlds, I find that business has more difficulty with self-deprecation than other industries. I initially thought it was a problem for medicine, but more and more it’s used in serious medicine, perhaps because of the changing societal position of physicians. Smart parish ministers have made it an art for getting serious ideas across, while defusing some opposing church members.

    A significant portion of humanity seems to lack a penchant for humor in work settings. The quantity and quality seems to vary from culture to culture. In the Upper Midwest where we’ve lived for 35 years, you have to be cautious about humor–the work ethic doesn’t always view it as appropriate. But it goes far more easily for me in Chicago, Detroit or New York.

    Intriguingly, intercultural studies show that humor is one of the most difficult skills for integrating people of other cultures. In other words, what’s funny in one situation ain’t funny in another. People can pick up on nonverbals before they “get” the humor.

  3. Posted May 22, 2009 at 6:58 am | Permalink

    Self-deprecation is such an attractive quality, one that we in the U.S. do not see modeled that much. And, Dan, some kinds of physical humor (facial expressions and other acting out) may translate better between cultures. I’m honored by the high calibre of both your comments

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