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On Being Humorless

It feels good to laugh. Laughter is a real “high” as endorphins are released into the bloodstream, providing an emotional sensation that is almost euphoric.

Sometimes we get to laugh at ourselves, and it is good if we do so. We shouldn’t take ourselves too seriously. Other times we get to laugh with others (notice I didn’t say “laugh at others”). That collective laughter can be bonding.

Comedians are trained in matters of human psychology, timing, and delivery in order succeed in making us laugh, and that is generally a good thing.

I like telling jokes and I’ve gotten rather good at it over the years. Again, my timing, pacing, articulation, appropriate pauses, facial expressions, etc., have become refined to the point that I generally can get an audience to laugh. And usually that is the case.

I deliver jokes as well as humorous personal stories in various settings, notably in some of my college courses (even online courses) and professional seminars, speeches, workshops, etc. All of the above audiences have usually found such antics delightful and hilarious.

I do recall, however, a time in the past where I delivered a full day workshop to a business team of a major U.S. Corporation – a Fortune 100 company – where I delivered a joke right before each break. Now this was a tough audience. The team struck me as dysfunctional. I was actually an observer of the team in question the day prior to my workshop, and I marveled at the degree of acrimony present among the team. They seemed to dislike each other immensely, with serious rivalries among different segments of the overall team being evident.

Usually, when I deliver a half-day or full-day workshop, I have the audience fill out an evaluation form at the end, describing among other things, what they liked best, and what they liked least, as well as what their key take-aways were. Almost always, a number of audience members mention my jokes in the “What did you like best” segment (which disappoints me, as the jokes are such a small and insignificant portion of the workshop). When I see that, I wonder to myself: “The thing you liked most from the entire workshop involved my jokes? Really?”

Also, some jokesters in the audience also mention the jokes in the “What did you like least” segment, but they usually write “LOL” or “Ha hah” next to that comment, showing they were being playful and teasing me. I don’t take such comments seriously but I do wish they had given a more realistic statement of what they actually liked least rather than teasing me about the jokes.

But this difficult team I mentioned above was troubling. While several of them did the usual and claim what they liked best were the jokes, about a quarter of the audience members – about 7 of them – specifically claimed the jokes were the thing they liked least, and it was clear that they were serious, based on additional comments they made. The jokes seemed to have ruined the entire full-day workshop for those 7. In other words, while the combined total of time the jokes took to share, about 9 minutes when you total them all up, those 9 minutes, for those 7 audience members, completely negated the value presented in the other 450 minutes of cutting-edge content.

What is one to make of such a response?

It would be easy to allow the take-away to be not to tell any more jokes – ever – for fear of alienating those individuals who seem to not have a humorous bone in their bodies.

But I don’t think that’s the right play.

I think what I learned from this incident is that there are people on dysfunctional teams who are themselves dysfunctional. In fact, they may be why a team is struggling. Such persons find offense in humor. Such persons seem to wake up in the morning wondering where they can find something to be offended about that day, and they do not plan to be disappointed.

My take: accept the fact that some people are not inclined to like to laugh. They instead prefer to be annoyed, offended, put off, and irritated. And they revel in pulling others down to their morose state of being. What is that phrase, . . . Misery likes company.

And there you have it.

Ara Norwood is a multi-faceted and results-oriented professional. Spanning a multiplicity of disciplines including leadership, management, innovation, strategy, service, sales, business ethics, and entrepreneurship. Ara is also a historian, having special expertise on the era of the founding of our republic.
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