One day about a dozen years ago I did something out of character for me, prompted by several articles I had read on the power of humor. I got on the elevator to go to my fifth floor office with one of my Ph.D. students, which was unusual in itself because I usually took the stairs. I asked my student to copy my behavior. Then I turned to face the back of the elevator. A young woman got on at the second floor. Without saying a word, she turned and faced the back of the elevator. Presumably this was social conformity in action (a social influence principle I discussed in this column in February, 1995, under the heading, "The urge to conform and obey"). Whatever the case, my student and I fought back the urge to break out laughing. Two men got on at the third floor, saw the three backsides facing them, and shouted, "What the heck is going on?" We couldn't hold it in any longer. All of us laughed the rest of the way to the fifth floor. I still remember my mood that morning. After getting off the elevator I was playful and euphoric; not my usual serious, work-focused self. I said, 'Good morning,' with a smile to everyone I passed in the hall. I recall stopping to give one student genuine praise for excelling on a class research assignment. That day in 1985 showed me the value of humor. It can raise mood states, lift attitudes, and improve interpersonal behavior. You can put it to use for safety purposes as well. When people are in a good mood, they're more apt to actively care for the safety or health of another person. Plus, the creative use of humor can improve group presentations and one-on-one interaction.
Tactics to tickle
But humor is an elusive thing. Sometimes you reach for it, but get only stony silence and stares in return. We've all told jokes that bombed. For humor to work, you need a funny story or punch line, and you need to deliver it the right way with a sense of timing. It's not easy to select and use the right kind of humor in the right spot. Let me tell you about the five basic ways we get people to laugh. This comes from a 1996 audiotape series, "The Secrets of Power Negotiating," as explained by Roger Dawson. Pun: You know one as soon as you hear it. There's the OSHA inspector, for example, who kicks off his presentation: "I suppose you all want the latest dope from Washington... well here I am." "More hay, Trigger?" "No thanks, Roy, I'm stuffed." Go ahead and groan. You get the idea. Exaggeration: Bill Cosby is a master at creating an overblown visual image we can relate to and laugh at. He's talked about his experiences in kindergarten, for example, writing with a pencil "as big as a horse's hoof" and on paper "with pieces of wood still in it." Remember Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show. He'd open a monologue talking about how hot it was in Burbank. The studio audience would shout, "How hot was it?" Johnny would pause, then say something like, "It was so hot that a flock of birds burst into flames from spontaneous combustion." You can exaggerate to make a point about a safety problem. "We had so little involvement at the last safety meeting that..." or, "That forklift was traveling so fast when it rounded the corner that..." You fill in the punch line. Surprise: I once watched a group facilitator use surprise to break tension, and to slow down a safety meeting that was moving at too fast a clip. He announced, "We must pause a moment for a spot announcement." Immediately, a coworker barked, "Arf, arf." "Thank you, Spot," said the facilitator. Not only did this exchange come as a surprise to the audience, it was also a pun. And it definitely incorporated silliness, which is described next. Silliness: Here we're talking about comedians like Britain's Mr. Bean, the Three Stooges, and Gallager, whose stage antics include smashing watermelons with a giant hammer so juicy chunks rain down on his audience. Part of this humor can be goofy slapstick. But it can also be verbal. Statements like these are just plain silly: "Suicidal twin kills sister by mistake." "He who laughs last thinks slowest." "Criminal lawyer is a redundancy." The put-down: Many of today's comedians favor this approach. You see it when they slyly put down a talk show guest, something in the news, or often themselves. I once heard a humorous put-down given when hardly anyone showed up for a safety meeting. The invited speaker asked, "Did you tell them I was coming?" "No," replied the safety coordinator, "it must have leaked out." Think about the power of humor, and its many applications. Laughter can take the sting out of disappointment or criticism, as was the case in the safety meeting. Jokes and funny stories can be used to make a constructive point. A little levity eases the tension that sometimes surrounds one-on-one coaching, making people more receptive to what the coach has to say. And it can liven up the boredom and routine that are often part of training and education. If this article makes you smile or chuckle, you've been touched just a bit by humor's magic. How dreary our days would be without it. Honing a good sense of humor is well worth the effort.
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E. Scott Geller, Ph.D., is Alumni Distinguished Professor, Center for Applied Behavior Systems, Virginia Tech, and senior partner with Safety Performance Solutions, Blacksburg, VA.
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