When Humor Becomes Weaponized

“It was just a joke.” How many times have you witnessed mean and aggressive behavior explained away by that line? Actor Will Smith’s meltdown at the Academy Awards was inexcusable, but it ripped the cover off something we all know: humor, even when used by professionals, can become a weapon. The very things that make something funny are also the things that can make a joke hurtful. Here are some tips for making – and taking – a joke.

Humor can be a way to connect with others in the room; sharing laughter can be one of the quickest ways to bond with others. It’s one of the reasons that for decades, speakers were advised to open a speech with a joke. No one gives that advice anymore, for good reason. Most people just aren’t funny enough to pull it off.

But we understand funny when we see it. We love to laugh, and we love to make other people laugh. It’s a purely human instinct that is present even in babies. We appreciate humor as a sign of intelligence, both intellectual and emotional. But it takes practice to get humor right, especially at work.

There are three main kinds of humor we use in the workplace. The first – and often the most effective – is self-deprecating humor. Making fun of ourselves demonstrates our confidence by demonstrating vulnerability. It takes courage to laugh at ourselves, and it takes even more courage to invite others to laugh at us. Being vulnerable in front of people sends the signal that you trust them. You’re also letting them know that your ego isn’t fragile.

Here’s a great professional example of self-deprecating humor. Amy Schumer: “I’m from New York, but everyone thinks I’m from the Midwest. I guess I just have a face that looks like I’ve recently milked something.”

Here’s a great example from real life. “The good news with me as your team lead is that what you see is what you get. That’s also the bad news.”

The second kind of humor that works in the workplace is observational humor. Observational humor takes something that everyone has seen or can identify with and makes it funny. People laugh because it’s true.

Jerry Seinfeld is the master of this medium. “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” It’s funny because it’s true.

Here’s how that might look in the workplace. “I hear management is considering adding a nap room as a perk for the office – employees have asked for it for a while, apparently. We spend the first few years of our lives fighting against taking naps. Then, in our thirties, we spend years fighting for them.”

Finally, there’s teasing. Teasing is the toughest humor to master, because you’re making fun of someone else. Generally, we tease someone only when we feel affection for them. Siblings, partners, good friends, and trusted allies can tease each other. But teasing is an art form, one that takes years of trust and emotional reciprocity to master. It can backfire easily and wipe out a relationship in a matter of seconds.

We get our ideas about teasing from television comedy. Friends and spouses on those shows tease each other unmercifully, and no one stays mad for long. Here’s a line from The Big Bang Theory’s Bernadette to her husband Howard (both are very petite people.) “I told you you shouldn’t have espresso after dinner. I know the little cups make you feel big, but it’s not worth it.” 

But in real life, people do get hurt feelings. Generally, teasing works when the two people involved share the same status. When one person has more power, teasing looks like bullying. That’s why it almost never works when the boss teases someone (unless they’re very, very emotionally intelligent.) Peer-to-peer teasing works…until it doesn’t. If you tease someone on the wrong day, about the wrong thing, or in front of the wrong people, it can come back to bite you. Or slap you, as it were. If you’re ever reduced to telling someone they “can’t take a joke,” you’re probably being a bully. Stop it.

Even if you have good intentions, something that was funny the first time you said may no longer be funny at all the fiftieth time you say it. In fact, that’s almost always true. You can cross the line into bullying without realizing it. Read the room. Read your friend. Take the high road.

Ask yourself these questions the next time you feel a tease coming on.

Is it true?

Is it necessary?

Is it kind?

If it’s not, just pass on the opportunity and say something kind instead.

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