Have you ever wondered what causes a smile, a laugh, or rollicking laughter? Philosophers, comedians, and psychologists have asked this
question for many years. There’s no answer, and that is part of the fun. Aristotle thought that an ugliness or defect, which is not painful or destructive, is comic. Charlie Chaplin defined humor as, “playful pain.” People laugh when they see someone fall down, but if that person doesn’t get up, they’ll stop laughing. Chaplin was the “little tramp” who took the kicks of the world and walked out of every picture, away from defeat that he had somehow turned to triumph.
WHAT IS HUMOR?
There are many definitions of humor. It seems best described as “nervous susceptibility to incongruence.” A person laughs when there is a contrast between what a thing or situation is perceived to be and what is supposed to be. If a person falls into the water with his bathing suit on, we don’t laugh. But if he falls in wearing his street clothes, that’s incongruous and will strike most people as funny.
An executive-search firm found that executives under thirty-five had a lesser sense of humor than their older counterparts. People have become more serious and cynical, perhaps because of international and economic tensions. This attitude is reflected in how we see our lives and our various roles.
USING HUMOR IN A CRISIS SITUATION
All businesses, from the most complex corporate structure to the mom- and-pop store, place a high value on humor. Top executives rely on their sense of humor to control their image and how the public views their companies. This is especially true in a crisis when a company’s image is at stake. Here the executive can make or break the company with the way he handles the crisis. When Chrysler chairman, Lee Iacocca, was faced with the company’s financial trouble, he volunteered
to reduce his salary to one dollar a year. One of his shareholders asked him to comment on this, and Iacocca replied, “Don’t worry, I’ll spend it very carefully.”
Iacocca was able to find humor in his situation because he could consider the question from a different point of view. By finding a new perspective on a troubled, embarrassing, or discouraging situation, you can redirect your thinking to new ways of dealing with the problem. This removes you from the immediate situation and allows you to get a bigger picture. From this vantage point crises don’t seem so terrible or permanent. Keeping a jovial outlook gives you a sense of security in the middle of chaos. A well-aimed humorous remark is a lot better than giving up in defeat or trying to escape the situation.
A change of perspective can also make you more effective with the people with whom you work. Mentally detach yourself from the situation and the people with whom you are working. Stand back, as if you were watching a play. At once, the roles of the people you observe come into focus and appear in a completely different light.
Taking risks is an important part of our lives. The ability to know when to take a risk is very important. Keeping a sense of humor when considering risks can be useful. When you try to do something risky and it fails, your sense of humor can save you from further insult or damage. Demonstrating humor in tense situations is risky in itself, but you can use it to your advantage to show your associates that you are human and sometimes make mistakes. When we take the initiative in admitting mistakes, people tend to be less critical. Revealing our own faults and mistakes leads to our own self-knowledge, which leads to self- confidence and improved performance. An active sense of humor is a trait many companies look for in their executives. It’s an indication that the person has an active, flexible mind, that he doesn’t take himself too
seriously, and that even if he errs once in a while, he is capable of making better decisions in the future.
THE PHYSICAL EFFECTS OF HUMOR
We’ve seen that when people are in a tense business and social situation, humor will relieve psychological stress, but it has a positive physical effect for us too.
In 1976, publisher Norman Cousins wrote about laughing himself to recovery from a degenerative spinal condition. Doctors had told him that his illness might have been caused by adrenal (kidney) exhaustion. Endocrine imbalance (meaning the balance of hormonal secretions in the bloodstream) can be caused by negative emotions, such as tension, frustration, or suppressed rage. Cousins had read about the endocrine system’s role in fighting disease. He wondered: If negative emotions can harm you physically, can positive emotions help you?
Doctors gave Cousins a 1 in 500 chance of survival, but rather than accept their decision, he took matters into his own hands. He checked out of the hospital and into a hotel room. He ordered several tapes of the humorous television shows, films and books. With these, Cousins gave himself a treatment program of belly laughter that worked as an anesthesia for relieving some of his pain. Within a few years he had recovered fully, and now he lectures all over the world about his “laugh therapy.”
While some doctors said that Cousins would have recovered, anyway, others seriously began to study the biology of laughter. Some new discoveries in the chemical research and the mental health fields have given the old saying, “Laughter is the best medicine,” a brand-new meaning.
Laughter is just plain good exercise. It gives the diaphragm, thorax, abdomen, heart, and lungs a good workout. Muscles in the abdomen, chest, shoulders, and elsewhere contract; the heart rate and blood pressure increase; the pulse can double from 60 to 120. A good belly laugh has the same effect as running in place!
Laughter also can relieve some state-of-the-mind discomforts such as boredom. It stimulates the brain to produce certain hormones that trigger the release of endorphins, proteins produced naturally within the brain that reduce pain or discomfort, release tension, and give us extra energy.
There’s a good deal of evidence to show that the person with a healthy sense of humor has better healing qualities and better effectiveness on the job.
Psychologists regard the humor-making aspect of human beings as a means of actualizing the self and coping with life’s ups and downs. Humor helps you from getting stuck in annoying situations. Through it you become more than the person who can’t find a parking place or the one who just blew the Jones account. You can say to yourself, “This situation is absurd, but I’m not.”
FOUR TYPES OF HUMOR
There are many kinds of humor. You have probably noticed many of them in your surroundings.
First, there is hostile humor. This is making people laugh by hurting someone else. In an office, for example, the boss might say in front of
everyone in the room, “Miss Jones, you have been here two weeks, and already you are one month behind in your work.”
The second kind is superior humor. This is laughing at someone else’s inferiority. On his first visit to New York, a small-town visitor managed to stop at all the bars in Times Square before he stumbled down a stairway leading to the subway. Emerging half an hour later, he met a friend who had been looking for him. “Where have you been?” the friend asked. “Down in some guy’s cellar,” the man replied, glassy-eyed, and, boy has he got a set of trains!”
The third type of humor is authority-rebellion humor. The following anecdote from the writings of Winston Churchill is a good example of this approach. On one occasion Churchill submitted a written speech that was to be distributed to the London Press. A young Oxford civil servant read the speech and sent it back to Churchill with the following message written in the margin, “My dear Prime Minister, I hardly think it is fitting for the Prime Minister of England to dangle his participles or end his sentences in prepositions. Kindly correct before distribution,” Churchill read this and sent it back with the following note in the other margin, “My dear young man, this is the sort of criticism up with which I will not put!”
The fourth type is philosophical humor. This is perhaps the highest form of humor. It is the humor of mature people expressing honest curiosity. It is poking fun at human beings when they are foolish or forget their place in the universe. Abraham Lincoln’s humor is a good example. Lincoln probably never made a joke that hurt anybody else. Indeed, many of his jokes had an educational function beyond the laugh. One day when Lincoln was walking along a Springfield road, he approached a man who was driving by in a carriage. Lincoln asked the man if he would take
his overcoat to town. “With pleasure,” the man said. “But how will you get it back again?” “Very readily,” said Lincoln, “I intend to remain in it.”
USING HUMOR TO YOUR ADVANTAGE
To harness the power of humor in your communications, here are some easy techniques that you can use. If it is a formal setting, comment on the flattering introduction. At a convention of the American Bar Association, the chairman introduced former president, Adlai Stevenson. When Stevenson stood up to give his speech, he said, “I was a little worried as Mr. Craig was giving that wonderful introduction. I began to think that he was going to introduce Benjamin Franklin.”
You can also belittle your position in order to gain more respect from the listeners’ initiative. Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “I am a professor emeritus, which means pretty nearly the same thing as a tired-out or a worn-out instructor.”
You can poke fun at yourself. Joan Rivers says, “I was a homely kid. When the other boys in the neighborhood played doctor, I was the receptionist.”
You can describe a funny happening. General Douglas MacArthur used this technique in his farewell speech to West Point cadets. MacArthur had graduated at the top of his class at West Point and later became its superintendent. He said, “As I was leaving the hotel this morning a doorman asked me where I was bound. And when I replied, “West Point,” he remarked, ‘Beautiful place. Have you ever been there before?” With those few remarks, MacArthur, austere in appearance and solemn in the manner of five-star general showed that he wasn’t a stuffed shirt.
You can tell an amusing anecdote about yourself. Author Mortimer J. Alder tells the story of stopping in a jewelry store to pick up a gift. The jeweler, who had a passing acquaintance with his customer, posed a question. “What do you do, Mr. Alder?” he asked. “I’m a philosopher,” replied Adler. The jeweler looked dismayed. “No,” he said, “I meant what do you do for a living?’
You can use humor to identify with your listener. Mark Twain once said to the New England Society, “I reverently believe that the Maker who made us all, makes everything in New England – but the weather.”
New York Bishop Fulton J. Sheen was especially noted for his wit. He once said that he thought applause summed up the highest Christian virtues. He felt that if anyone clapped before he spoke, they were expressing faith. If anyone clapped in the middle of his talk, he thought they were expressing hope. And if anyone clapped at the end, it was an act of charity.
There are various functions of humor. You can use it effectively to dramatize a point. Two astronauts scheduled for a lunar mission were simulating some procedures on a Navajo Indian reservation in Arizona. The terrain there was similar to the moon’s surface, and the duo needed practice.
A Navajo medicine man spotted the space-suited pair and asked the chief who the funny-looking guys were. Told they were going to the moon, the medicine man asked if they would deliver a message for him.
The astronauts readily agreed. Since the Navajo language is not a written one, a tape recorder was used. Curious, the astronauts asked the medicine man what the nature of his message was. Translated, it meant, “Beware of these two. They’ll try to make a treaty with you.”
You can use humor to lay the groundwork for a serious point. A college professor, to make his point, told his class that W.C. Fields was once asked, “How do you like children?” His answer was, “Well cooked.” The professor went on to say that “no one, no matter how humane, can stand to be in the presence of an adolescent twenty-four hours a day, but if you’re going to be a teacher,” he said, “it helps if you like kids.”
Humor can advance your central theme. The distinguished lawyer and politician William Jennings Bryan told the following story:
Some years ago a celebrity returned to his alma mater – a small college in the West. After a speech in the chapel by the visitor, the president of the college asked him if he would like to visit the room that he had while he was a student there. The celebrity said that he would be delighted to, and so the two men crossed the campus to the old dormitory and knocked at the door.
Now it happened that the present occupant of the room studying his Latin with the help of a fair coed – a violation of the rule forbidding girls to visit the boys’ dorm. The boy suspected that his caller may be a faculty member, and so he told the girl to hide in the closet. She did, and he answered the door.
The president presented his distinguished guest and explained why they were there. The celebrity looked around the room and smiled. “Ah, the same old table and the same old chairs.” He went to the window. “Yes, even the same old tree.” He turned back and said, “The same old closet,” and opened the door. He saw the coed and exclaimed, “And the same old girl.” The student spoke up. “My sister, sir.” “And the same old lie,” replied the celebrity.
From here, Bryan moved on to the same old lies that his political opponents were telling.
Humor can give your ideas vivid illustration. In getting people to rally their forces behind you, you can use the story about the young man who approached a father about marrying his daughter. The father was skeptical and said, “I doubt very much that you would be able to support my daughter. I can hardly do it myself.” The young man then offered the bright suggestion, “We’ll just have to pool our resources!”
As a memory device, you can’t beat the power of a story. It’s amazing how often we forget what someone has said, but the stories they told stay with us. Humorous stories can be powerful vehicles for driving home your message. They appeal to the emotions and get people involved. Most stories are personal experiences, so you aren’t just telling – you’re relating, which means you’re feeling. Stories are a friendly gesture. They gain attention. They have universal appeal. They take the known – what you can hear, see, and feel – to the unknown and the abstract.
DEVELOPING YOUR OWN SPECIAL SENSE OF HUMOR
Now here are some specific techniques that you can use to develop your own sense of humor.
Develop a sense of irreverence. Few of us are so naïve and unsophisticated as not to be aware that we are amply supplied with the vanity, stupidity, greed, dishonesty, and hypocrisy to deny the same! Become aware that there’s a funny side to almost everything, because there’s a negative side to almost everything. Nobody’s perfect, and you can be on the lookout for evidence to prove it.
While irreverence has you looking for the negative, defective, and embarrassing side of things, the joke must be “on” some person or some group. Rather than rely on a plainly aggressive insult, which few will find comfortably humorous, your humor will be more palatable if it points out that there is at least a little vanity, a little greed, a little dishonesty, a little laziness, and a little stupidity in everyone. Will Rogers said that everybody is ignorant, only on different subjects.
Develop a sense of fun. Most of us are too tense, and we’ve forgotten how to play. The psychology of humor is not much more complicated than the psychology of “just kidding” or “poking fun.” I enjoy using puns, even if it’s just for the pun of it!
Humor also needs an element of fair play. It should throw a punch that’s hard enough to get a laugh, but soft enough to be accepted as appropriate for the occasion and the target. It’s a little like the golfer who has to swing hard enough to clear the lake, but easy enough to stop on the green. The gentle dig that mixes harmless fun with veiled flattery will earn you warm laughter and affection.
Much of the clever wit turned out by funny thinkers comes from divergent thinking. One of the world’s experts on the subject is Dr. Edward de Bono of Britain. He calls it sideways or lateral thinking. But it could just as easily be called upside down, backward or circular thinking. It’s the opposite of convergent thinking, in which the thinker proceeds, logically in a straight line, from point A to point B.
The divergent thinker starts out with the notion that maybe A and B don’t have anything to do with each other. Or maybe A should come after B. He uses free association and other presumably disorganized techniques. Thus he turns up thought clues, unusual connections and
angles, and anything else that may lead to logical, but unusual, solutions and ideas.
De Bono explains that serious, logical, straight-line thinkers are tyrannized by usual and old ideas. They frequently come up with the same idea others have already thought of because they keep using the same straight and narrow logical path other thinkers have used and reused. For instance, when people want to solve a difficult problem, they usually say, “Let’s get down to brass tacks.” I ask you, what’s wrong with copper tacks, steel tacks, sailing tacks, income tax, syntax, and contacts? Maybe there’s more than one alternative.
Sometimes divergent thinking can turn up consequences that are highly literate commentaries on our way of life. Here’s an example. The modern bathtub was invented in 1856. The telephone was invented in 1870. This means that for fourteen years once could soak peacefully in the tub without being called to the phone.
Many funny ideas, especially those based on divergent thinking, are inherently surprising. Many others are not, and so must be made surprising by the manner or context in which they are presented. Putting it another way, an important element of humor is a sense of “setup” or deception: “She uses convenience foods a lot. She has what you would say a Birdseye view of cooking.” That idea has inherent surprise. Frequently a deceptive buildup consists of an apparent compliment preceding the punch. “Have you all noticed Joe’s new tie? Isn’t that some tie? It…it is a tie, isn’t it, Joe?”
Even when the basic idea does have built-in surprise, it will get a better response if even more deception is added. Here’s one example: “You’ll be happy to hear that my brother finally found a job. He didn’t get it, he just found it.” The basic idea that finding a job isn’t getting a job is an
unexpected twist. The train of thought necessary to get from A to B makes it even more funny. Here’s another example: I wish I could thank each and every one of you personally for helping me win this election. I wish I could thank all of you. Obviously that would be ridiculous, because many of you were no help whatsoever.” A sense of deception tells you that almost any idea can be made surprising if it is preceded by a misleading idea and delivered in a misleading manner.
Humor depends on clear, quick communication of words and ideas. Jumbled word order to scrambled thoughts force your listener to stop, and even to back up, to figure out what’s going on. And so, in using humor you face all the challenges of serious communication, only with greater intensity. But the rewards of learning to use humor are worth the effort.
FIVE ACTION STEPS TO HELP YOU DEVELOP AND USE HUMOR
- Use incongruity. Lead people to believe that you’re going to say something very logical, then say something different or unexpected. Example: “The major of New York should have the fluency of Henry Clay, the solidity of Daniel Webster, the firmness of Andrew Jackson, and the digestion of an ostrich.”
- Use exaggeration to strengthen your point by stretching the truth. To illustrate his three-time loss as a candidate for president, William Jennings Bryan used this anecdote: “A woman was so fat that she had to get off the streetcar backward. She had tried three times to leave, but each time she was helped on again by someone who thought she was entering instead of leaving.”
- Use understatement to represent something as less than it really is. Referring to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Winston Churchill said, “They [the Japanese] have certainly embarked upon a very considerable undertaking!”
- Use irony to say something that is the opposite of what you mean. Mark Twain said, “It’s very easy to give up smoking. I’ve done it a thousand times.”
- Look for the situation in your everyday life where you are taking yourself too seriously, and see the absurdity of the situation. This will lead to greater self-awareness, which leads to greater self- confidence, which lead to improved performance.
We can measure our growth as we observe our use of humor in our everyday life. Humor seems to grow out of an emerging wisdom. The power of humor recognizes this humanness. With this we can achieve a new level of success as we laugh with and at ourselves. And as we encourage others to laugh with us, all of us benefit as we share our humanity.