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:
- Those Across-the-Board Cuts That Aren't
- One widespread feature of organizational life is the announcement of across-the-board cuts. Although
they're announced, they're rarely "across-the-board." What's behind this pattern? How can
we change it to a more effective, truthful pattern?
- Social Safety Margins
- 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?
- Creating Trust
- What can you do when you discover that the environment at work is permeated with distrust? Your position
in the organization does affect your choices, but here are some suggestions that might be helpful to anyone.
- Fooling Ourselves
- Humans have impressive abilities to convince themselves of things that are false. One explanation for
this behavior is the theory of cognitive dissonance.
- Toxic Conflict in Teams: Attacks
- In toxic conflict, people try to resolve their differences by eliminating each other's ability to provide
opposition. In the early stages of toxic conflict, the attacks often escape notice. Here's a catalog
of covert attack tactics.
See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming December 19: Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Creation
- Three feelings are often confused with each other: embarrassment, shame, and guilt. To understand how to cope with these feelings, begin by understanding what different kinds of situations we use when we create these feelings. Available here and by RSS on December 19.
- And on December 26: Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Coping
- Coping effectively with feelings of embarrassment, shame, or guilt is the path to recovering a sense of balance that's the foundation of clear thinking. And thinking clearly at work is important if you want to avoid feeling embarrassment, shame, or guilt. Available here and by RSS on December 26.
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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.