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.
The 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
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:
- What's So Good About Being Laid Off?
- Layoffs during the holiday period of November 15 through January 15 are far more common than you might
think. Losing your job, or fearing that you might, is always difficult, but at this time of year it's
especially helpful to keep in mind that the experience does have a bright side.
- Demanding Forgiveness
- Working together under stress, we do sometimes hurt each other. Delivering apologies is a skill critical
to repairing those hurts and maintaining our relationships.
- On Advice and Responsibility
- Being asked for advice can be an affirming experience, but actually giving advice can sometimes entail
risk. How can this happen, and what choices do we have?
- Not Really Part of the Team: II
- When some team members hang back, declining to show initiative, we tend to overlook the possibility
that their behavior is a response to something happening within or around the team. Too often we hold
responsible the person who's hanging back. What other explanations are possible?
- Scope Creep, Hot Hands, and the Illusion of Control
- Despite our awareness of scope creep's dangerous effects on projects and other efforts, we seem unable
to prevent it. Two cognitive biases — the "hot hand fallacy" and "the illusion
of control" — might provide explanations.
See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming October 17: Overt Belligerence in Meetings
- Some meetings lose their way in vain attempts to mollify a belligerent participant who simply will not be mollified. Here's one scenario that fits this pattern. Available here and by RSS on October 17.
- And on October 24: Conversation Irritants: I
- Conversations at work can be frustrating even when everyone tries to be polite, clear, and unambiguous. But some people actually try to be nasty, unclear, and ambiguous. Here's Part I of a small collection of their techniques. Available here and by RSS on October 24.
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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.