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:
- When You Make a Mistake
- We've all made mistakes, and we'll continue to do so for as long as we live. Making mistakes is part
of being human. Still, we're often troubled by our mistakes, even when we remember that many mistakes
turn out to be great gifts. Why do we have such a hard time acknowledging mistakes?
- The prevalence of overwork has increased with the depth of the global recession, in part because employers
are demanding more, and in part because many must now work longer hours to make ends a little closer
to meeting. Overwork is dangerous. Here are some suggestions for dealing with it.
- Toxic Conflict at Work
- Preventing toxic conflict is a whole lot better than trying to untangle it once it starts. But to prevent
toxic conflict, we must understand some basics of conflict, and why untangling toxic conflict can be
- On Differences and Disagreements
- When we disagree, it helps to remember that our differences often seem more marked than they really
are. Here are some hints for finding a path back to agreement.
- Dealing 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
See also Emotions at Work for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
- And on February 5: Unrecognized Bullying: I
- Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized. Three reasons: (a) conventional definitions of bullying exclude much actual bullying; (b) perpetrators cleverly evade detection; and (c) cognitive biases skew our perceptions so we don't see bullying as bullying. Available here and by RSS on February 5.
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