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:
- You Remind Me of Helen Hunt
- At a dinner party I attended recently, Kris said to Suzanne, "You remind me of Helen Hunt."
I looked at Suzanne, and sure enough, she did look like Helen Hunt. Later, I noticed that I
was seeing Suzanne a little differently. These are the effects of hat hanging. At work, it can damage
careers and even businesses.
- Getting Home in Time for Dinner
- Some of us are fortunate — we work for companies that make sure they have enough people to do
all the work. Yet, we still work too many hours. We overwork ourselves by taking on too much, and then
we work long hours to get it done. If you're an over-worker, what can you do about it?
- More Things I've Learned Along the Way
- Some entries from my personal collection of useful insights.
- Compulsive Talkers at Work: Addiction
- Incessant, unending talking about things that the listener doesn't care about, already knows about,
or can do nothing about is an irritating behavior that harms both talker and listener. What can we do
- Compulsive Talkers at Work: Peers II
- Our exploration of approaches for dealing with compulsive talkers now concludes, with Part II of a set
of suggestions for what to do when peers who talk compulsively interfere with your work.
See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming August 5: Red Flags: III
- Early signs of troubles in collaborations include toxic conflict, elevated turnover and anti-patterns in communication. But among the very earliest red flags are abuses of power. They're more significant than other red flags because abuses of power can convert any collaboration into a morass of destructive politics. Available here and by RSS on August 5.
- And on August 12: Cognitive Biases at Work
- Cognitive biases can lead us to misunderstand situations, overlook options, and make decisions we regret. The patterns of thinking that lead to cognitive biases provide speed and economy advantages, but we must manage the risks that come along with them. Available here and by RSS on August 12.
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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.
- Bullet Points: Mastery or Madness?
Decision-makers in modern organizations commonly demand briefings in the form of bullet points or a series of series of bullet points. But this form of presentation has limited value for complex decisions. We need something more. We actually need to think. Briefers who combine the bullet-point format with a variety of persuasion techniques can mislead decision-makers, guiding them into making poor decisions. Read more about this program.