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Volume 15, Issue 16;   April 22, 2015: Quips That Work at Work: I
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Quips That Work at Work: I

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Perhaps you've heard that humor can defuse tense situations. Often, a clever quip, deftly delivered, does help. And sometimes, it's a total disaster. What accounts for the difference?
Henny Youngman in 1957

Henny Youngman (1906-1998) in a 1957 publicity photo. He was a comedian of stage and screen, known as "the king of the one-liners" because most of his jokes were very, very short. His most famous line is perhaps "Take my wife…please." Although his humor has little potential for direct application in the workplace, students of his brevity will gain much. Photo courtesy Wikipedia.

It's easy to make big mistakes when the thinking parts of our brains are no longer in charge. When things get tense, or when fear or anger take over, people are more likely to say things or do things that harm relationships, or careers, or even the enterprise. We need ways to climb down from those dangerous places, back to where we can think clearly again. Humor can help.

I'm not thinking of long, funny stories, or canned jokes. Quips are more like it — quips that somehow connect to the situation.

There's a story floating around the Internet about a San Francisco woman police officer responding to a domestic disturbance call. These calls are dangerous because emotions run high. Approaching the house, she hears a man shouting angrily. Then a television crashes through a second-story window, and smashes at her feet. With her firearm still holstered, she knocks at the door. The angry voice booms, "Who is it?" She replies, "TV repair…!" A pause. Then, from inside, laughter. The man inside opens the door. She enters and pacifies the situation.

That's a quip ("TV repair"), connected to the situation, and undeniably funny. If the story isn't true, it could be. It's plausible. We can easily imagine why the quip worked.

But humor doesn't always work in tense situations.

In criminal jury trials in the United States, after the jurors are selected, the prosecution and defense each make opening statements. In the trial of George Zimmerman, who had been charged in the 2012 death of Travon Martin in Florida, the defense counsel, Don West, told a joke during his opening statement:

Knock-knock.

Who's there?

George Zimmerman.

George Zimmerman who?

Ah, good. You're on the jury.

The joke landed with a thud heard round the world. (Watch the video) Mr. West later apologized for his choice, claiming that the problem was not the joke, but the delivery. He was, I believe, mistaken.

Why did Mr. We need ways to climb down from
tense situations, back to where
we can think clearly again.
Humor can help.
West's attempt at humor fail so miserably? And why was the humor of the San Francisco police officer so successful (we suppose)? The answers to these two questions can provide valuable guidance for using humor in tense situations at work.

Here are the first two of a set of guidelines for just that.

Keep it short
The shorter the better. A single word is best. Think Henny Youngman.
Tie the quip to the here and now
Canned jokes, like Mr. West's knock-knock joke, are designed for stand-alone use. That is, they're usually self-contained. If they aren't self-contained, they depend only on general context, independent of what's happening in the moment. That's why connections from the canned joke to the moment can seem tenuous, which makes the humor seem forced. Make the connection as immediate as possible, in the way that the San Francisco police officer did.

We'll continue next time with more guidelines for Quips that work at work. Next in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Quips That Work at Work: II  Next Issue

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