Not every situation is humorous. Not everyone enjoys listening to jokes or watching comedy routines. There are times when the situation is serious and demands a focused or somber attitude. In these situations, humor can backfire and appear demeaning and somewhat hurtful. Dry humor or “graveyard” humor are also not for everyone. There are other situations, including some serious ones, when the use of humor can lighten an otherwise negative experience. Sometimes, when things in life are particularly dire, one can choose to laugh or cry. In these situations, choosing to laugh can be the best approach to deal with the situation, as long as laughing is not misperceived by those around us. For example, when my late mother was in the throes of dementia, we had numerous situations that were frustrating to all of us, including my mom. We decided, upon her initial diagnosis, that we were going to take things in stride and further, we would chose to laugh instead of cry when the inevitable frustrations arose. There were countless times when many people, if faced with the same situation, would have cried (or worse, lashed out in anger), but we intentionally chose to look for the humor instead. The main point of this example is to say humor is indeed positive, laughter is indeed good for the soul, but only when those around us, faced with the same situation, understand our philosophy.
Melissa’s example regarding her mother is telling as it relates to the last part of her post, “when others…understand our philosophy.” Those who did not know the details of the situation, that is, her mother was cognitively impaired, perhaps did not understand when the two of them laughed at things like spilt pancake syrup. But, in that context, it did not really matter, what mattered was that humor was helpful. In other contexts, it does matter. We recently hired a young woman who, though seemingly well qualified, demonstrated immaturity and other social awkwardness in several ways, one of which was inappropriate laughter – “giggling.” Laughing about the specifics of some of the lawsuits on which we consult is beyond the norm. There are often serious injuries or deaths involved. Perhaps this was just “nervous laughter” but it persisted even after being pointed out as inappropriate. This person was unable to grasp the cues being given as to the acceptability of the laughter and did not pass her probationary period partially as a result of laughing at things the rest of us do not consider funny. In other contexts humor is truly used to break the tension – operating room humor comes to mind. As a photographer I sometimes photographed operations in a hospital/operating room setting. I will never forget innocently asking a surgeon what the bloody blob he was holding out of someone’s abdomen for me to photograph was – I wanted to know what I was shooting. He said, “it’s a uterus and accessories” – an obvious attempt at a bit of “operating room humor” – not of the MASH variety – but nonetheless humor and others in the room laughed at him, or at me for asking. And, that may have been my first true operating room humor experience, but it was not my last. In our trial consulting work, the stakes are high often because something horrible occurred and the lawyers, and we, sometimes find such operating room humor in these settings. But, as the principal consultants we have to point out to employees that is it not for them to initiate or engage in these exchanges because they rarely know the client-attorney or the attorney’s clients (whose threshold for humor is much lower than the attorneys’) well enough to do so. The bottom line, humor has a place in the work place, but it is not to be engaged in without careful thought.