The elevator doors closed, and Ron and Caroline had a minute or two to themselves. Angry, Ron could wait no longer. "Caroline. Why are you always telling us what to read? I'm so busy you just make me feel bad I don't read much."
Now Caroline felt bad. "I'm sorry…I just got so inspired by this book. It's so profound."
The elevator came to a stop, the doors opened, and they stepped into the lobby. "OK," he said. "So what is the eighth habit?"
Caroline smiled, "Writing bestsellers." They both laughed.
With humor, Caroline turned shared tension into shared laughter. Humor helps us through the tight spots. But what can you do if you're just not funny? Here's a concise guide for the humor-impaired.
- Accept that you're hilarious
- If you ever laugh at yourself, you're funny. Accept it. All you need to learn is how to let others in on it.
- Don't tell jokes
- If you ever laugh
- Jokes probably don't work for you — not yet anyway. Instead, build your humor from whatever is in the air. Nearly everything at work is laughable if you look at it right.
- Be patient
- Wait for the right opportunity — a dark moment or a silent pause in a tense situation.
- Be fast
- You have to get there before anybody else, and before the conversation moves on.
- Violate expectations
- Surprises work. The lead-in to this essay contains an example: If you're already skilled, I can't help you, but if you're humor-impaired, I can't help you either. The "but" is key.
- Break serial patterns
- One reliable way to violate expectations is to use a series of three items. Use the first two to establish a pattern, and then break it with the third. That's why so many jokes have three people in a boat, or three people going into a bar.
- Avoid wisecracks about others' personal attributes
- These are likely to offend, especially if the attributes are negative or can't be changed, like height, weight, or stupidity.
- Be self-effacing
- Make fun of yourself in a way that everyone can connect with. Use this sparingly — overdoing it can be bad for your career. Unless you're Rodney Dangerfield.
- Be terse
- The fewer words the better.
- Avoid sarcasm and deadpan at first
- If people know that you're humor-impaired, they don't expect you to be funny. Until they do, they'll assume that your dry humor and sarcasm are serious.
- Make recursive references
- Turn the idea onto itself, possibly at a deeper or shallower level. This is what Caroline did above. See "When It Really Counts, Be Positive," Point Lookout for March 13, 2002, for another example.
Want more portable humor? Load up your MP3 player with Stephen Colbert, Tom Lehrer, Elayne Boosler, or Garrison Keillor. Pick up a new MP3 player from Amazon.com.
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- When It Really Counts, Be Positive
- When we express our ideas, we can usually choose between a positive construction and a negative one.
We can advocate for one path, or against another. Even though these choices have nearly identical literal
meanings, positive constructions are safer in tense situations.
- When You Can't Even Think About It
- Some problems are so difficult or scary that we can't even think about how to face them. Until we can
think, action is not a good idea. How can we engage our brains for the really scary problems?
- Irrational Self-Interest
- When we try to influence others, especially large groups or entire companies, we sometimes create packages
of incentives and disincentives that are intended to affect behavior. These strategies usually assume
that people make choices on rational grounds. Is this assumption valid?
- Reverse Micromanagement
- Micromanagement is too familiar to too many of us. Less familiar is inappropriate interference in the
reverse direction — in the work of our supervisors or even higher in the chain. Disciplinary action
isn't always helpful, especially when some of the causes of reverse micromanagement are organizational.
- The Injured Teammate: I
- You're a team lead, and one of the team members is very ill or has been severely injured. How do you
handle it? How do you break the news? What does the team need? What do you need?
See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 2: Narcissistic Behavior at Work: VII
- Narcissistic behavior at work prevents trusting relationships from developing. It also disrupts existing relationships, and generates toxic conflict. One class of behaviors that's especially threatening to relationships is disregard for the feelings of others. In this part of our series we examine the effects of that disregard. Available here and by RSS on May 2.
- And on May 9: Unethical Coordination
- When an internal department or an external source is charged with managing information about a large project, a conflict of interest can develop. That conflict presents opportunities for unethical behavior. What is the nature of that conflict, and what ethical breaches can occur? Available here and by RSS on May 9.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.