When Humor Crosses the Line

Laughter, Why Bother?

Laughter is a form of joy and good energy. Laughter helps us break away from suffering and allows in a lighter perspective. Its purpose is to loosen us up – not bring us down.

“If there is no malice in your heart, there can’t be none in your jokes.”  Will Rogers, Humorist

With humor’s positive benefits, we might conclude that any form of it is life-enhancing. Not always true.  Humor used improperly can be harmful. Have you ever been part of a gathering where a joke or funny comment caught you off-guard – made you uncomfortable? Instead of feeling good you wanted to head the other way.

Understanding Humor Boundaries

Here are three scenarios where humor crosses the line, along with suggestions on how to shift into a better place:

  • Jokes made at the expense of those we know.

This popular (and unfortunate) humor style utilizes funny-seeming repartee in an underhanded way against a co-worker or family member. At work John constantly makes fun of Thomas. Thomas is actually a covert bully, yet senior management heaps him with high praise. Instead of confronting Thomas about his cavalier attitude, John finds ways to make fun of him. One day it’s about his clothing style, another it’s his recent presentation. Although staff perceives Thomas as a bully, at the same time they feel uncomfortable when John ridicules him. They rightly suspect the humor is John’s cover-up to avoid feeling simmering anger and jealousy.

The Shift 
A trusted woman colleague, Martha, decides to confront John about his jokes. They meet privately. Martha explains that although she values their relationship, the joking is contaminating the work environment. She points out that between Thomas’ bullying and John’s double-meaning jokes, she is stressed and finds it hard to concentrate.

Martha asks John to brainstorm other ways of dealing with Thomas. John is insulted. He sees himself as the workplace class clown, and claims other employees enjoy his lively banter. After simmering down, John thoughtfully considers Martha’s concerns. He  admits joking is the only way he knows to masquerade his anger. He asks her for some time to process, and they agree to speak again. Martha expresses gratitude and feels hopeful things can improve.

  • Jokes about people different from us. 

    Aunt Elizabeth, chic and svelte, unfailingly finds a way to poke fun at the overweight. She notices when a family member puts on pounds, and relishes in broadcasting the newsflash. If someone inquires about her other interests and activities, Aunt Elizabeth tracks back to TV shows featuring “fat” people and makes fun of their poor eating choices. She sees her disciplined, “3 light-meals-a-day” approach as a best-selling cover: The Way to Eat and Look Your Very Best!

Family members have tried to figure out what’s behind their family member’s constant focus on excess weight. She’s a downer at buffet parties. Everyone dodges her rants.

The Shift
Aunt Elizabeth lost her balance and bruised her leg. She couldn’t stay home alone and needed help. Although her family wanted to hire a professional for a few hours a day, Aunt Elizabeth would not agree to a stranger in her home. Her favorite niece, Tory, stepped up and offered to stay for two weeks.

When Tory stopped by to discuss arrangements, she asked her aunt to try and refrain from making fun of others. Tory said the negative comments upset her. Aunt Elizabeth acted as if she were hearing Tory’s remarks for the first time. Didn’t she have the right to say whatever she believed?

Tory went on to explain that several of her best friends are overweight. She doesn’t invite them to family parties out of fear of what her aunt might say. Besides, Tory really wanted to see more of the kind and generous side of her aunt who offers a few dollars to anyone in need. Aunt Elizabeth agreed to refrain from any weight discussions while they lived together.

  • Making jokes to hurt people/put them down.

    Kendra disguises insults using sarcasm. Anyone serves as a target because she sees life as one big joke. After months of listening to Kendra’s put-down jokes, her gym buddy Mike had enough. Mike says to her: “I know sometimes you like to joke around, but I don’t like it when you say that I look like a turtle.” Kendra tells Mike to “lighten up,”  that he’s being too sensitive: “Hey,  I was only kidding. What’s the matter, can’t you take a joke?”

Mike attempts to repeat his words differently, but Kendra shuts him down.

The Shift
It becomes clear to Mike that he needs a break from Kendra. “Look, we have had some good times, but I think I need my own space.” He continues, “I don’t think we share a similar sense of humor. Sometimes what you find funny I find hurtful. I don’t think you’re a bad person, but we don’t make good friends.” Confused, Kendra walks away.

What Does It Take to Make the Shift?

It is not easy to talk to someone about their unhealthy behavior. 
Yet, at some point we have come to recognize our feelings of distress. These feelings get mixed with the realization that the bad humor isn’t going to stop. Our emotions attach to the fear, which creates further drama. The only way out is to return to peace of mind: to take and make a shift.

 Use these five Shifting Techniques to ease stress and clear the air:

  1. Be prepared. Play out a few scenarios in your head about how your conversation will unfold. Are you willing to walk away from the relationship? Remember we lost our way because our emotions and fear became involved. If we are committed to shifting ourselves, we need to have an outcome that will bring us to peace.
  2. Be clear. Before saying something to the joker, determine the purpose of the conversation.What specific behavior/attitude you bringing to his/her attention?Are you asking the joker to clarify a comment?Are you sharing feelings?Are you seeking resolution?
  3. Be open. We shall not judge the joker! If our goal is to create peaceful interactions, then we must start by making sure our hearts are full of compassion. Reacting or running from someone solves nothing; it only creates more confusion.
  4. Be courageous. If only these conversations were easy!  It seems there are so many variables when we feel emotionally charged. We may require other sources of courage along the way to help us stay strong. This may mean talking to a trusted friend, coach or supervisor.
  5. Be connected to values. Do we value the relationship more than our judgments/anger? Do we value peace more than drama? If we value solutions, we will turn on our imagination to visualize effective steps. If we value our relationships, we will ask love to step in and guide us.

Want to learn more about humor? Join Rita at her upcoming humor workshops!

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