We can become better at using humor

Note: this post is meant to introduce some ideas as for why we should get better in using humor and how we can use science, the psychology of humor, to do so; it lays some groundwork for future work – and not any ready recipes as how to do so.

 

Humor is taken for granted – a human behavior so natural and spontaneous, that it is rarely a subject of conscious reflection, let alone something we attempt to change. However, I believe that we can become better at how we use humor exactly by thinking a little more about how we use it.

And, by ‘becoming better’, I do not mean just using more humor: telling more jokes, winning put-down contests, and becoming an amateur stand-up comedian at every party you go to. I mean becoming more conscious of the effects of humor and use it to enhance communication and strengthen relations, rather than to exclude or hurt people.

I had two experiences that first led me to think that we can and should strive to become better at using humor:

One was during my first longer trip abroad when I needed help from someone who wasn’t exactly happy to provide it and with whom it was difficult to communicate due to the language barrier. We managed to share a laugh, though, at which point tension relaxed and the situation ended well.

The other one wasn’t as positive and took place only a few months later, when a friend told me “You know, you can be funny when you tease with people – but not everybody always likes it. On the other hand, when others laugh at you, you get irritated and defensive.” That feedback was hard to swallow – not only did I learn that I could have been a ‘humor-bully’ but also a mild gelotophob (a term I later learned means a ‘person pathologically afraid to be laughed at’).

The first experience made me curious: why is humor such a powerful mean of communication? what other serious roles does it play? why is something funny?! The other experience, however, made me want to become more conscious about my own humor practice and change it.

Being a young psychology student, I started to look for answers in psychological research. There was nothing on humor in textbooks and the curriculum – a lot about depression and anxiety disorders, though – but I found a whole bunch of papers on humor in international databases.

I learnt that my experience abroad was thanks to the evolutionary roots of smiling and humor, shared by all cultures and millions of years older than verbal communication. I learnt there are certain contexts and not-so-obvious social rules that make people either receptive or not to put-down humor, which I was so fond of.

And psychology of humor held many more insights, e.g. that 70% of people blame others for their own failed humor (Williams & Emich, 2014); that using humor can influence the perceived status of people participating in a meeting (Robinson & Smith-Lovin, 2001), or that only by sharing a laugh with someone we perceive them as similar to ourselves – even they’re total strangers (Fraley & Aron, 2004).

Such insights not only satisfied my curiosity, but already learning some words and definitions used to systematically describe humor-related phenomena (like: put-down humor, humor styles, incongruity and cognitive distance), made it easier to reflect and talk about humor. Learning about different psychological and social effects and mechanisms of humor further on, allowed me to put these reflections in context.

It led me to believe that scientific knowledge about humor can and should be present in areas like teambuilding, coaching, therapy and self-development. We address topics like conflict, stress, identity and cultural differences in them – why not humor, one of the most common and pervasive aspect of human behavior.

Surely enough, you find a lot of ‘humor consultants’ and different ‘humor courses’ or ‘programs’ out there – from stand-up comedy and improv courses to development of one’s own sense of humor for health benefits (e.g. How to Develop Your Sense of Humor. An 8-Step Humor Development Training Program, by Paul E. McGhee, 1994). Some of them are more professional then others (e.g. the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor) and the latter category is more in line of my understanding of ‘becoming better in using humor’.

However, the majority of them is focused on introducing more humor. Furthermore, to this date I could find only a few empirical studies assessing effectiveness of such programs. An example is a paper The development and evaluation of a systematic program for improving sense of humor by Nevo et al., 1998, which provides only “small but positive support to the possibility of improving some elements of sense of humor” (p. 404).

To this extent, what I’m about to share below are just some reflections on which attitudes can be helpful in applying the knowledge from psychology of humor in practice to become better at using humor (and not guidelines or prescriptions as how to do so exactly):

  • Don’t be afraid that by describing your humor experiences and talking with others you’ll ‘overanalyze humor and kill the fun’
  • Be conscious that humor can have positive and negative effects in social context
  • Never make the excuse “it was only a joke” when you/someone else is hurt by humor (by yourself or others)
  • Don’t be afraid of failed humor – but be open to learn from your failures (don’t blame others’ ‘bad sense of humor’)
  • Be forgiving when others fail in humor – allow them new chances to be funny
  • Try different ‘sizes’ of incongruity

 

To conclude, in spite of the famous quote by E.B. White, who said that “analyzing humor is like dissecting a frog – few people are interested and the patient dies at the end”, I think it is worthwhile to analyze, understand and talk about humor to improve how we use it.

Of course, it’s not about analyzing every single funny remark and little laugh (and believe me reading, writing, and thinking about humor – even a lot – does not kill all the fun). It can help to notice when humor, or lack thereof, can be a problem and reflect about it for yourself or discuss it others.

 

References

Fraley, B., & Aron, A. (2004). The effect of a shared humorous experience on closeness in initial encounters. Personal Relationships(11), 61-78.

McGhee, P. E. (1994). How to Develop Your Sense of Humor. An 8-Step Humor Development Training Program. Kendall Hunt Publishing.

Nevo, O., Aharonson, H., & Klingman, A. (1998). The development and evaluation of a systematic program for improving sense of humor. In W. Ruch (Ed.), The sense of humor: Explorations of a personality characteristic (pp. 385-404). Berlin: Walter de Gruyter.

Robinson, D. T., & Smith-Lovin, L. (2001). Getting a Laugh: Gender, Status, and Humor in Task Discussions. Social Forces, 80(1), 123-158.

Williams, M., & Emich, K. J. (2014). The Experience of Failed Humor: Implications for Interpersonal Affect Regulation. Journal of Business Psychology, 29, 651-668. doi:DOI 10.1007/s10869-014-9370-9

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