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The Rules for Being Funny… or Serious

CryingAndSmilingMasksHere it is in a nutshell: There are no rules. I’m sorry if you expected more than that, but anyone who professes to know a one-size-fits-all definition for each band of the humor spectrum is lying or misguided at best. It is usually a matter of situation and timing for something to be found funny. In company reorganizations we can refer to misguided efforts as “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic,” but there was a time that nothing about the Titanic was remotely funny. The late comedian Steve Allen was quoted as saying, “I guess you can make a mathematical formula out of it. Tragedy plus time equals comedy.”

Somewhere between being a humorless stick-in-the-mud and a circus clown is that sliding scale of appropriateness. When we hire people into an organization and talk about the best cultural fit, it is never 100% Brooks Brothers or 100% Ringling Brothers. Our youth-oriented culture emphasizes the “having fun” part of our work life, but at some point, most people grow beyond that. Could there be a cause and effect relationship between positioning a company as “cool” and the reason that new grads soon become disillusioned and look for other jobs? Last week in the news it was reported that roughly 14% of Zappos hires have decided that their jobs were not fun anymore and opted for the buyout bonus. Is Holacracy really just a way to say Hello to Crazy in Spanish? Now that’s funny!

At the risk of being a liar or misguided (by my own definition) maybe there can be a few common-sense guidelines for counterbalancing gravity with levity.

  • Rationality – Awareness of self is the key to honing the impression we make on others. It is impossible to always hear ourselves as others hear us, but we can “feel” our own presence, deliberately find out who we are, and maintain our sanity. According to Kurt Vonnegut, “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh since there is less cleaning to do afterward.”
  • Healing – Patching broken feelings and bodies always finds humor as good medicine. Erma Bombeck wrote, “There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” The trick is listening to the environment and training our intuition to find that thin line. It is only by trial, error, and sometimes apologies that we fine-tune our sense of line drawing.
  • Speaking – Mark Twain was a humorist and a philosopher as well as an author. According to Twain, “It usually takes more than three weeks to prepare a good impromptu speech.” Whether it is a company training exercise, a speech to stockholders, a graduation speech, or a sermon in church, the attention-grabbing introduction is often made humorous to offset the flow of more serious information to follow.
  • Surviving – Coping with the stresses of daily life is easier when we use humor to polish the rough edges off of a bad situation. Ironically, Bill Cosby once said, “Through humor you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers. And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.” I would hope that he is using his genius for comedy for his own life troubles.

This really should be an ongoing thought process rather than a one-shot look at how humorous or how serious we need to be in any given situation. Looking to science, psychotherapist and author Maud Purcell advised to “humor up” your work environment by bringing kids toys to work and keeping them within reach. “That irate customer on the phone will have no idea that you are keeping your cool by playing with a Slinky.” Technology has erased the traditional boundaries of our workplace and we now interact with a broader universe through social media. Delight your family, friends, coworkers, and the public at large by sprinkling humorous things in your timeline on Facebook and Twitter. My bet is that it will put you in a better place personally, socially, and professionally than dry data or contentious crap.

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