I find it funny that I am about to tell you why humor is such a great tool in the art of persuasion. It just seems so obvious. After all, humor speaks in universal truths about human existence, and invites people to laugh at themselves and even laugh with others at themselves. Or laugh at others in blissful ignorance that the joke is really about themselves.
Everyone loves quotes. And all speakers use them. What is so funny about quotes? How about quoting myself? Because, as I say quite often, “United we stand, but divided, we can not stand each other!” And I could not agree more. Humor breaks down the barriers that keep us divided and polarized. Humor builds bridges to bring us together. Humor attracts interest, puts people on common footing, and creates an atmosphere of goodwill that is conducive to meaningful communication. Humor discharges resistance, overcomes stubbornness, and creates opportunity for dialog. Humor has such a positive impact on people that more and more businesses (not the dead-serious ones though!) use it to train and retain employees. Humor is a powerful tool for the person serious about creating positive change. Why? Well, in case I haven’t made the point, not because I say so. It’s a fact. Humor is persuasive.
But let’s be honest. Not all humor is equally funny. In fact, bad humor is also one of the fastest ways to put people in a bad mood, undermine relationships, create hard feelings, offend sensibilities, poison an atmosphere and destroy what could have been a great event, project, team, business, or community.
And I’d say that it is safe to say that not all funny is funny to all. In-jokes are usually only funny to the people in on the joke, the people who shared the experience with you. They tend to leave everyone else drawing a blank. But sometimes, you tell an in-joke, the people who are in start laughing, and the people who aren’t in on the joke start laughing too! All the while, they are wondering, and maybe even saying, “What’s so funny?” because they want to know why they are laughing.
Still, you just can’t please all the people all the time. If it is tasteless, spare us. Unless you know us and know that our taste runs all the way to tasteless. And really, the only way to know what is and isn’t funny is to know as much as you can about who you are talking to and find out what you can about what they find funny.
So just how do we use our wits to keep our wits about us? How do we use humor in our communications in order to foster goodwill, camaraderie and common ground? How do we persuade with humor?
For starters, be non-verbal! No, no, I don’t mean don’t say anything! Although there are people who, without saying a word, can make people laugh, and even change people’s minds, because they’re funny to watch. Just as there are people who provoke laughter in others by acting funny, looking funny, and sounding funny, regardless of what they say. But I’ll say this about the way people look and sound. Nonverbal humor makes verbal humor funnier. And a nonverbal lack of humor can make verbal humor as flat as a pancake, flat as a board, as flat as a tropical ocean on a hot windless day when the sweat pouring from your skin is hot enough to make tea but you have no water to drink because someone convinced you that taking a walk under the cloud cover that is now gone would be great exercise, and you find yourself shouting to the heavens ‘THIS IS A VACATION? DEAR LORD, WHY DO YOU WANT ME TO DIE?” and your anguished cry has no echo and falls flat and the silence makes the heat seem even hotter than had you said nothing at all. But I digress.
The point I’m trying to make is that verbal humor, without nonverbal humor to support it, can be risky business, like writing that previous sentence. It was really funny when I was saying it, but you couldn’t see me. I could. Trust me, it was VERY funny. But all you have are the words. In fact, one of the un-funniest things you can try to do with words is write about what is funny. It’s painful! But the good news is, pain is funny. Keep laughing at me or with me and I’ll explain in a moment.
While there are inherently funny words, (newcular instead of nuclear, for example) you will find more funny in a facial expression, a playful voice tone, and an exaggerated gesture. And you can use words to create a funny picture, to imply an accent, or to demonstrate that you have plenty of attitude. Y’all need me to draw you a pitcher? Well, pitcher this. Cartoons ever make you laugh? Oh yes, they did. And how? Through the dishing out of incredible amounts of pain. And why did that make you laugh? The painful fact is, that…
Pain is funny. Comedians understand that pain, whether physical or emotional, is what’s so funny about humor. Not all pain. Just the kind you survive. And pain is funnier when it is happening to someone else. Not so much when it happens to you. Except, that is, for the people who watch it happening to you. They may be quite amused. They’re thinking that it’s better you than them. They are laughing at your expense. Nice of you to give them such a treat. Which gives us a new twist on an old adage. “If you can’t laugh at your own pain, laugh at someone else’s.” So it should be no surprise that…
Ridicule can be ridiculously funny. Making fun of serious things can be funny, just as being serious about funny things can be funny. Though in this age of the politically correct, you should be very careful about who and what you make fun of. Ridiculing yourself is always a good bet. There was a time when laughing at ‘the other’ was funny, whether it was a racial difference or a gender difference. Actually, gender differences are still funny. This is universal, so everybody gets it. Like that time I was working with a couple in my counseling practice. And the husband says to me, “She’s crazy, doc!” I replied, “Funny, she says the same thing about you!” And he says, without a trace of irony, “Well that just proves how crazy she is!”
Now, I’m frequently asked the probing question, ‘So you think that’s funny?’ And if you don’t know what that means, then let me explain it to you. I’ll type really slow so you can keep up. The that they refer to when they say that is… sarcasm. And my answer is, it sure can be. As in, “Ah, I see you’ve set aside some time today to humiliate yourself in public!” As in, “I like you. You remind me of when I was young and stupid.” As in “I’ll try being nicer if you try being smarter.” As in, “Well, you probably said it without thinking, the way you do most things.” As in, “I’ve had an incredible evening. But not tonight.”
Sarcasm aims at a target. And it is not always funny, unless it is used the way I use it. Because I use sarcasm in stories about other people, not about you. In those stories, I sometimes first have other people use it on me. Then, as part of the same stories, I use it on them, because they deserve it. My audience seems to agree. HAH! But I never use it directly on anyone. Except my former best friend, who tells me that hurtful sarcasm means, “I love you” in his hometown. I’m not sure if that’s true. If it is, he must love me a lot. But then, if he had an honest opinion, it would probably wind up be in solitary confinement. My biggest regret is that, when we were friends, I could never quite lower my I.Q. enough to have a meaningful dialog with him. He’s inscrutable, like a Vulcan, only without the ears, or the depth. But I hear that a mind reader offered to read his mind for half price!
By the way, I used to think that the single best response to sarcasm was “I know you are, but what am I?” I’ve since learned a funnier response. Take it at face value, as if it is meant to be exactly what it says. Someone tells you “Do you tie your own shoes?” You reply, “Yes, as a matter of fact, I do.” Keep that up and after awhile, they’ll take their sarcasm and go away. “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!” you can yell helpfully after them, while ironically hoping that it does!
Ok, kiddo, go have some fun with funny, and while you’re at it, make your persuasion proposition funny too! If it was already funny, make it funnier. If you want to know more, pay attention. Because funny happens all the time. And a quick post-mortem after the fact just may reveal how a deadpan affect worked, or how a joke killed an audience. But no matter what you do, when you finish this article, you should walk, don’t run, to your own happy place, find some funny and have a great laugh at my expense. Me, I’m going to go play with words, because that’s what I like to do when I’m not playing with them here.