Have you ever had someone say to you, "I was only kidding? Can't you take a joke?" Do you ever feel guilty after laughing at a joke? Have you ever been an evaluator at a club meeting when the speaker used inappropriate humor?
Do you wonder why I am asking these questions? These queries will help us focus on the most important question when it comes to using humor: To tell the difference between constructive and destructive humor, between humor that helps and humor that hurts, between laughing with others and laughing at others.
Humor is a powerful tool. It can build up or cut down. Toastmasters need to look for ways to maximize the positive and to minimize the negative impacts of humor. You need to learn the difference between humor that works for you and humor that works against you as a speaker (and as a human being).
To develop an effective sense of humor, you need to develop sensitivity to humor. To accomplish this, try the following three steps:
Let's take these steps one at a time. The more we can help ourselves and others be aware of the difference between positive and negative humor, the more intentional we can be in following Robin Williams' notion that humor is "acting out optimism."
My guess is that most people who use toxic humor are not trying to be malicious - they are just unaware that their humor is hurtful to others and ultimately to themselves. They often respond with, "Can't you take a joke? I was only kidding."
Regardless of the person's intent, this kind of humor hurts. We can all learn from the African proverb, "The ax forgets. The tree remembers."
So how can we help those who use the ax, who use cutting humor, to become aware of what they are doing and to break this negative habit? We need to be assertive, supportive and firm - and take some risks. There is no single "best" way to respond to negative humor - it will really depend on the situation, the people involved, and the nature of the interaction.
Here is a list of ways to interrupt an ethnic or put-down joke. The next time you hear toxic humor, try out this behavior and make note of the reactions (both in yourself and in the other person). The key is to move from awareness into action.
Of course, there are many more ways to tackle this situation. Feel free to add to this list...and use the responses whenever appropriate.
Many people who use negative humor just don't know any better - or any alternative. Most of what they have seen, heard and experienced is toxic humor - humor used as a weapon rather than as a tool. It's no wonder this is the style they adopt. As Albert Schweitzer noted, "Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing."
We need to help people see by our own behavior that humor doesn't have to be at someone else's expense, that we can use humor to laugh at ourselves and not at others, and that humor can be used to heal rather than harm. We can remind them that humor is laughter made from pain, not pain inflicted by laughter.
Look for ways to invite helpful humor into your life and work. Look before you lip. Laughing with others leaves people with whole self-esteem; laughing at others leaves people with a hole in their self-esteem. Let's move from "roasting and laughing at others" to "toasting and laughing with others!"
Here are a few of the many tips collected from 3,000,000 participants in the Humor Project's programs over the years. By drawing from these tips and creating your own, you can add years to your life...and life to your years!