Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 4, Issue 49;   December 8, 2004: A Guide for the Humor-Impaired

A Guide for the Humor-Impaired

by

Humor can lift our spirits and defuse tense situations. If you're already skilled in humor, and you want advice from an expert, I can't help you. But if you're humor-impaired and you just want to know the basics, I probably can't help you either. Or maybe I can...
Elevator doors at the Spalding Building, Portland, Oregon (2012)

Elevator doors at the Spalding Building, Portland, Oregon (2012). Photo (cc) by SA 3.0 Another Believer.

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
at yourself,
you're funny.
Accept it.
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.

Since you're out of practice, your first attempts will be painful to hear. Practice silently. When you're finally making yourself smile, it's time to let others enjoy your wit. Go to top Top  Next issue: Totally at Home  Next Issue

Rick BrennerThe article you've been reading is an archived issue of Point Lookout, my weekly newsletter. I've been publishing it since January, 2001, free to all subscribers, over the Web, and via RSS. You can help keep it free by donating either as an individual or as an organization. You'll receive in return my sincere thanks — and the comfort of knowing that you've helped to propagate insights and perspectives that can help make our workplaces a little more human-friendly. More

Pick one up from AmazonWant 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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Related articles

More articles on Emotions at Work:

The triangleThe Triangulation Zone
When somebody complains to you about someone else's performance, you're entering into another dimension — a dimension of three minds. That's the signpost up ahead — your next stop, the Triangulation Zone.
A horseEthical Influence: II
When we influence others as they're making tough decisions, it's easy to enter a gray area. How can we be certain that our influence isn't manipulation? How can we influence others ethically?
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As our personal workloads increase, we endure more stress and more time pressure. Inevitably, we have less time for the social niceties that protect us from accidentally hurting each other's feelings. When are we most at risk of incidental harm, and what can we do about it?
Six atoms in a Schrödinger "cat" statePreventing Toxic Conflict: I
Conflict resolution skills are certainly useful. Even more advantageous are toxic conflict prevention skills, and skills that keep constructive conflict from turning toxic.
A Bengal TigerDealing with Deniable Intimidation
Some people use intimidation so stealthily that only their targets recognize the behavior as abusive or intimidating. Targets are often so frustrated, angered, and confused that they cannot find suitable responses.

See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

The future site of 2 World Trade Center as it appeared in 2013Coming October 5: Downscoping Under Pressure: I
When projects overrun their budgets and/or schedules, we sometimes "downscope" to save time and money. The tactic can succeed — and fail. Three common anti-patterns involve politics, the sunk cost effect, and cognitive biases that distort estimates. Available here and by RSS on October 5.
A hummingbird feeding on the nectar of a flowerAnd on October 12: Downscoping Under Pressure: II
We sometimes "downscope" projects to bring them back on budget and schedule when they're headed for overruns. Downscoping doesn't always work. Cognitive biases like the sunk cost effect and confirmation bias can distort decisions about how to downscope. Available here and by RSS on October 12.

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