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Psych Your Mind: 'In jest,' you say?

Rose Cora Perry | Interrobang | Opinion | November 21st, 2011

Editorial opinions or comments expressed in this online edition of Interrobang newspaper reflect the views of the writer and are not those of the Interrobang or the Fanshawe Student Union. The Interrobang is published weekly by the Fanshawe Student Union at 1001 Fanshawe College Blvd., P.O. Box 7005, London, Ontario, N5Y 5R6 and distributed through the Fanshawe College community. Letters to the editor are welcome. All letters are subject to editing and should be emailed. All letters must be accompanied by contact information. Letters can also be submitted online by clicking here.
Ethel Barrymore, of the "royally-"deemed acting clan, once said, "You grow up the day you have your first real laugh at yourself." While Ethel was no psychologist, her words contain undeniable wisdom about human nature and the road to maturity: the ability to find humour within one's own action(s) and/or reaction(s) is only possible once one is able to acknowledge his/her chosen behavioural responses as disproportionate (and ridiculous) to their impetus. In other words, as Spanish performer Diana Raquel Sainz purported, you can only laugh at yourself once you're able to admit your faults and imperfections. In turn, this act promotes self-empowerment and growth. While the aforementioned is an important life lesson to learn, so too is knowing when humour is appropriate, welcome and in "good taste." Allow me to explain:

About a month or so ago, I was hired on as a subcontracted agent to assist a website design firm with administrative, accounting and content updating duties. At first, I was completely stoked about the position, given that all of the staff members were within my age range, the hours were flexible, work days didn't typically start until noon and on top of that, the pay was decent.

I'm not certain whether to conclude my manager was sexist or just had some sort of superiority complex, but what started out as what I just brushed off as harmless wisecracking soon developed into constant assaults on my character for no reason I could conceive of, considering he never indicated he was anything but satisfied with my work. It became pretty evident to me that his use of thinly veiled insults passed off as "joking" at my expense was his means of maintaining control. I am, after all, more academically accredited than him, among other things.

Beyond paving the road to personal psychological maturity, social science academics have noted that humour serves many important cognitive, affective, physiological and social functions: it's a proven "pick-meup," a tension reliever, a means of forging bonds with other individuals/groups, an effective teaching strategy, a way to lessen hostilities or simmer debates when they get out of hand, a vehicle for broaching taboo subject matter, a form of arousal and there's even evidence to support there's some truth behind the old adage that laughter is the best medicine.

Relevant to my recent job experience, however, is the anthropological finding that humour in the form of "mockery," "ridicule" and "belittlement" is frequently used as a powerful symbolic weapon within preindustrial Caribbean cultures to gain status, maintain the current pecking order and/or reaffirm social mores. The popularity of racist jokes within North American adds credence to this finding as their humour rests in pointing out widespread stereotypes of given ethnic groups, which only works to perpetuate said stereotypes. Moreover, it has been proposed that jokes rooted in discrimination stem from the subconscious fear of the dominant class that one day they'll be overtaken by those they oppress. Ironically, these types of jokes are often "owned" by members of the minority groups they seek to insult; something that can be interpreted as an act of subversion/defence against ridicule OR the internalization of beliefs about one's group held by the dominant class.

Suffice it to say that for all of the joy that incongruity, verbal wit, minor accidents, slips of the tongue and absurdity brings, humour can equally dampen your spirits, if done mindlessly or maliciously.

To elicit the former, psychotherapist and mirthologist Steven Sultanoff offers the following five suggestions to ensure that one is using humour correctly and appropriately:

1. Only use humour if the target/recipient of your humour has previously used humour with you.

2. Only use humour when you have an established strong relationship with the target/ recipient.

3. Only use humour in socially appropriate and light-hearted situations. Although some use humour to eliminate tension, Sultanoff suggests that this could lead to potentially undesirable reactions if taken too far.

4. If ever in doubt about one's relationship with a target/recipient, test the waters first with self-depreciating humour to gauge the target/recipient's response.

5. And finally, humour is used most effectively when employed to poke fun at a situation, NOT at another person or group of people.

To this, Hugh LaFollette and Niall Shanks of American Philosophical Quarterly add that humour is context-dependent and relies largely on a listener's current state. Even if a listener has the cognitive capacity and necessary information to find a particular joke or situation humourous, there are factors that may interfere with the processing of a funny stimulus, including one's current psychological and cognitive/physiological state, the environment and one's ability to detach from one's personal beliefs and see situations from varying perspectives. Gender contributes even more complication to these theories seeing as guys can and do regularly tear each other 'new ones' without getting offended.

In conclusion, I'd like to leave you with a few final thoughts to mull over next time you're contemplating adding some mirth to the mix: 1) ALL jokes are based on some sense of truth (albeit often exaggerated), 2) know your audience before you engage in displays of your wit, and finally 3) reserve your hilarity for its true purpose (i.e.: to produce happiness). If you've got nothing nice to say, don't say it at all — coating it with the "Oh, I was just kidding" excuse is just as lousy as trying to convince someone that you only slept with their significant other because you were drunk. In two letters, it's b.s.
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