Laughter turns strangers into friends………… sometimes

This week I’ve been attending the Distinguished Lecture Series at Cardiff University where I heard Professor Robin Dunbar (yes, he of Dunbar’s number) talk about some incredibly interesting topics.  I aim to post a few things about the whole lecture series, but for the minute here is what’s grabbing me, the importance of laughter and humour in human relationships.

I’ve been struggling with this for a while after someone suggested to me that humour in the workplace was about ‘hiding from the truth’, ’not dealing with difficult things’ and ‘not confronting our buried emotions’. Blimey, that’s all a bit distressing and depressing.  As I’ve always tried to have as much fun as I can in work, using humour and laughter, I must really be suppressing something huge!

Fortunately Professor Dunbar said a few things that have lifted my spirits and put me back on track:

  • Laughter triggers the uptake of endorphins in the body which makes us feel happy;
  • Laughter increases our tolerance to pain (so it is the ‘best medicine’);
  • Laughing with other people helps to form emotional bonds with them;
  • The more we share a sense of humour with someone the more we feel engaged with them; and
  • Laughter turns strangers into friends (sounds like a strap line for some Christmas  drink advert, but it makes a lot of sense to me).

I’m not doing credit here to what Professor Dunbar said and I would encourage you to watch the video.  What this has done however is given me the chance to relive one of my most epic failures, where an attempt to introduce humour into the workplace almost cost me a friend.

My friend was having a great deal of trouble trying to get their superiors to make a decision. The process involved countless iterations of a business case, double and triple checking,  risk assessments, procurement policy checks and meetings to go over and over the same ground. You may be familiar with this, or have heard about a similar type of situation, its shocking, I know.

Like all good friends I listened to their troubles over several weeks and tried to offer comfort and advice where I could. As it happens about this time I was on holidays in the US where I saw this ‘Make a Decision’ note pad and my friends predicament came straight  to mind. Perfect I think, a bit of humour is just the thing to get things moving.

Make a Decision notepad. I laughed!
Make a Decision notepad. I laughed!

It sank like a lead balloon.

The boxes to fill in on the ‘Make a Decision’ form were leapt upon with greedy enthusiasm, but when it got down to the detail there were totally bemused responses. “what do they mean by ‘apocalypse’ for worse case scenario? Do we have a corporate definition of apocalypse?”.  This might of course have been an elaborate double bluff, but I don’t think so. Some rapid diversion tactics were required and refocusing onto some familiar territory like, ‘updating the risk register’. Perfect, order restored.

In our post project learning (over beer) my friend and I discussed where it had all gone wrong. Definitely the delivery method could have been better (they say comedy is all about the timing), but for this audience a blatant attempt at humour was probably just too alien.

So, what’s the PONT?

  1. Humour and laughter are useful but you need to consider the audience. For some groups and settings it’s just too alien.
  2. Getting the delivery and timing right is important. Tabling the ‘Make a Decision’ form enthusiastically at a project update meeting was not the best option.
  3. Put yourself in their shoes. This was probably seen as highly threatening to the  group rather than something humorous. A real shame.

Picture source (also available to purchase)

About WhatsthePONT

I'm from Old South Wales and I'm interested almost everything. Narrowing it down a bit: cooperatives, social enterprises, decent public services, complexity science, The Cynefin Framework, behavioural science and a sustainable future. In 2018/19 I completed a Winston Churchill Travelling Fellowship, looking at big cooperative enterprises and social businesses in NE Spain and the USA. You can find out more here:

1 Response

  1. Great subject here Chris – but I don’t agree. I suspect there is no group or setting for which humour is too alien – it is core to our humanity and binds us like no other glue. And suspect Prof Dunbar may show other primates use it too…

    Thanks for the Christmas idea present too – the make a decision notepad has to be one of the most useful gifts ever…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s