That’s Not Funny

Why are so many children reported missing during a solar eclipse? Because no one can find their sun! My kids would roll their eyes at me if I told them that “dad joke.” Luckily, I have a granddaughter who still thinks I’m funny. Humor can be a healthy expression that can help us feel less alone, change our perspective on hard things, and promote a more positive outlook.

Assuming the joke is funny, laughter can help activate and relieve your stress response. It can increase and then decrease your heart rate and blood pressure. It can also increase your intake of oxygen, stimulate your heart, lungs, and muscles and release endorphins. Laughter can even improve your self-esteem.

Sometimes people use humor as a defense and/or coping mechanism. Joking about things helps us to distance ourselves from our emotions, providing temporary relief from a painful situation. Humor can also deflect embarrassment and shame in a situation where we feel awkward or disconnected. As long as we don’t become dependent on deflecting and pushing aside our feelings and we process them in due time, humor can be useful.

However, when humor is used to devalue others, it becomes harmful. Making jokes at someone’s (or some group’s) expense is often an attempt to feel superior and self-aggrandize—behaviors that are especially damaging when acted out by leaders. While everyone should be careful when using humor, leaders must be very careful.

Telling a joke about yourself and inviting others to giggle a little at the human frailties we all share can integrate the listeners with themselves and with others. However, we must be very careful not to humiliate, discount, or ridicule others by inclusion. In general, anything that is mean-spirited, defensive, competitive, offensive (to the average person) or belittles, demeans, ridicules, or erodes the dignity of others is negative humor and has no place in the leader’s speech.

One of the most harmful negative forms of humor is sarcasm. Dana Perino, White House Press Secretary under President George W. Bush, said, “Sarcasm is like cheap wine – it leaves a terrible aftertaste.” In fact, the word itself denotes its effect as it traces back to the Greek word “sarkazein,” which means “to tear flesh.” So. Sarcasm is using words to tear each other to pieces.

People who use sarcasm often add insult to injury when they follow with, “I was only joking,” or maybe worse, “Can’t you take a joke?” This puts the person you are belittling in a position where it is difficult to defend themselves. Sarcasm protects the speaker from vulnerability. However, this is the opposite of what we need in our leaders. Vulnerability, transparency, and humility are the trademarks of great leadership. That leaves sarcasm out.

The Smiths recorded a song in the 80’s (I know, I’m getting old) called “That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore.” In it, Morrissey sings:

“But that joke isn’t funny anymore

It’s too close to home

And it’s too near the bone

I just might die with a smile on my

Face after all”

Unfortunately, too much humor is based on very real differences and failures. Everyone may be laughing, but chances are good that someone in the group is dying inside. I’m not proposing that we stop using humor, but I am asking leaders to seriously consider if the way they use it does more harm than good.

Interestingly, we find it easier to laugh at ourselves, and with others, in a healthy way when we are in relationship with them. I can say things to my friends (and they will take it the way I meant it) that I would probably not be comfortable saying to a large group of people I am leading. So, the better our community is at relationship, the more we can use and enjoy humor.

Our community should be a place where people have fun AND feel safe. Leaders set the tone and create the basis for a healthy culture when they use humor sparingly and carefully. You can remember that coming from you, some things are not funny and still be a fun leader. Make sure you use humor to lift people up and help them get beyond moments of embarrassment and failure, and you will be leading the Bison Way.