Humor That Hurts

Have you ever told a joke and hurt someone’s feelings?  It’s easy to do.  And we usually don’t know until it’s too late.  When this happens, the target of your joke is not likely to be a stranger.  The closer your relationship to the person, the more likely that the humor will mis-fire.

Sometimes, the most dangerous joke will be that which targets your spouse, a brother or sister, a best friend.  Here are some factors that come into play:

1.  What is the history of your relationship with the person who is the target of the joke?  Does the person know you as someone who frequently uses humor as a tool?  Or does your joke-making come as a surprise.  The closer your joke comes as a surprise to the person, the more likely that offense may be taken.

2.  Who is the audience?  Is it an audience of one?  Or an audience of one hundred?  The larger the group, and the louder they laugh, the more likely the subject may take offense.  Coming into play is the principle of praise in public, criticize in private.  A joke is often seen as a negative attack.  How dare you be critical in front of so many people?

3.  What is the hidden message?  A joke often includes an unspoken, implied punchline.  It’s often what you don’t say that will get you in trouble.  This comes back to history again.  What baggage does the punchline carry?

4.  What is the truth?  One of the key humor triggers is THE TRUTH.  If something doesn’t ring true, it’s normally less funny.  There can be a sense of if they laugh a lot, they’re laughing AT me and not WITH me.  A joke based on extreme exaggeration which is not true is often safer than a joke which is totally true.

5.  Ask them.  Are you wondering if you offended someone?  In private, directly ask them.  And, if necessary, apologize.  You won’t always get a straight answer, people will often hesitate to admit they were offended.  But just the fact that you asked shows you care, and that you had good intentions.

Let’s look at a joke that could have an unintended result.  First, the setup:  A previous speaker, talking about creativity, gave the advice:  “Find out what everyone else is doing…and don’t do it.”  Later Ed, your friend, told a joke to the audience.  Here’s a possible Observational Humor joke.

Ed loves the advice:  “Find out what others are doing and don’t do it.”  He noticed that everyone was funny tonight…so he wasn’t.

The joke could sting.  It implies that your friend bombed.  How could you switch the joke to make it safer?  How about:

I loved the advice:  “Find out what others are doing and don’t do it.”  I noticed that everyone else was funny tonight…so I haven’t been.

The joke switched the target to YOU and has self-deprecation working as a trigger.  A joke aimed at the teller is almost always safer than one told at someone else’s expense.

When it comes to avoiding hurting someone with a joke, awareness of the possibility is a good first step to keep you out of the danger zone.  When in doubt, take the safe road.