What’s So Funny About That?

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“I don’t have answers; but I do have questions designed to make you think,” said the workshop leader, a young man with kind eyes and hair beyond his control.

“Oh great,” I thought, “I signed up for a workshop on humor in the classroom to get ideas on how to make learning fun; instead I’m going to spend forty-five minutes thinking lofty thoughts. Good grief.”

The instructor then asked a series of questions that, indeed, required thought. Worse, after each query, he stood silently for what seemed like an eternity looking at his participants as though we were thinking. So we did.

“Think about a time when unkind words, parading as humor, hurt you or someone you know,” he said. “How did you feel?”

In response, I remembered one of my fourth-grade students and her family entering my classroom during a back-to-school open house. I smiled at the shy but bright youngster, “Hi, Marlene, would you like to introduce me to your family?”

“Marlene?” her teenaged brother said, “We call her Toad. Just look at her. She looks like Grandpa.” As Marlene’s parents chuckled fondly, I saw the light in a little girl’s eyes go out. And it didn’t come back for some time.

I ignored the comment and said, “It’s a pleasure to work with Marlene; she’s an excellent, hardworking student.” I remember feeling inadequate in the moment, and the intervening years hadn’t changed my opinion.

I was relieved when the workshop instructor interrupted my self-critique with his next question: “When you feel uneasy or put down by words others find funny, how do you react?”

This time, my memory returned me to a faculty lounge in a new school in a new state where a colleague bombarded me with Mormon jokes after he heard my background. Daily, he greeted me with a new joke: “Hey, Janet, what do you call a good-looking woman in Salt Lake City? A tourist. What’s the difference between a Mormon woman and an elephant? About ten pounds. What is a Mormon woman’s favorite wine? When-ner we gun-na ha-va ‘nother baaaa-by?”

My colleagues laughed uneasily. I felt harassed, uncomfortable and defensive. Soon, I began to avoid the lounge.

Fortunately, my unhappy memories were ended by another question from the workshop instructor: “In the past, how have you responded to offensive or hurtful comments, stories or jokes presented as humor? Do you wish you’d responded differently? If so, how?”

“Obviously,” I thought, “I haven’t responded. I either pretend to ignore hurtful humor or avoid it. Then I feel ineffective. I wish this man would just tell us what to do.”

Once again, he didn’t enlighten us. Instead, he divided us into small groups and said, “We’ll never reach consensus on the best way to recognize and react to negative humor, but we can raise our consciousness by discussing our experiences with it.”

The intense discussion in my group included a response strategy suggested by a matronly lady with a kind smile: When someone used negative humor, she would wait until the laughter died and then pretend she didn’t understand the joke: “I don’t get it. What’s funny about that?” She told us that, usually, when someone attempts to explain negative humor, the joke’s put-down, hurtful nature is revealed.

After our group discussions, the workshop leader shared a quote:

“My pain may be the reason for somebody’s laugh. But my laugh must never be the reason for somebody’s pain.”
Charlie Chaplin

He then dismissed us.

As I left the room, I knew this brief workshop had forever changed the way I would hear, use and react to humor.

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81 thoughts on “What’s So Funny About That?

  1. This is a very helpful post, Janet. I love that question, and I can look back and see several times when it would have been effective, when, sadly, I felt I didn’t have anything to say that would help. I hope I don’t have occasion to use that question, but I’m planning to keep it handy. Thanks for sharing this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I, too, stored the question away for future use and have actually used it twice: once with a neighbor and once with a teenage relative. Both times they started to explain and faded away, eventually mumbling, “You know what I mean,” and “You just don’t get it,” respectively. I responded, “No, I really don’t,” to both. Our relationships weren’t strained and I felt good about how I handled the offensive humor.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. What a beautiful post. Thank you! I hate sarcasm and my family (mom) was a master. Sometimes it was funny and, to her credit, she would turn it on herself sometimes and it was funny. My brother could be sarcastic and funny, but it could kill a glorious moment for him and for me. Now I’m absolved from them I don’t have to put up my shields any more. I met a woman a few years ago who was very much like my mom. It was an important moment in my life because I realized I had the power to turn all that around and disarm her simply by being kind, by praising something she did. When I did, she melted.

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    • You are so welcome, Joanne. And I want to thank you for your blog on Bisbee, Arizona. My husband and I were there a few days ago. We toured the mine, the lavender pit, and went to the museum based on your review, then stayed in the Copper Queen Hotel. It was a great visit. Thank you.

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  3. Once again a post that makes us all remember our past mistakes and times when the joke was against us or we made the hurtful remark while not thinking. . I love the response and will try to keep it close in my mind. Ps I have finished your book and just love the stories. I keep it by my bed as it’s a perfect read before I turn out the light. 💐

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think those of us who recognize our own failings with humor are ahead of the game because chances are we will be more thoughtful about it in the future. I am so happy that you enjoyed my book. Thank you for ordering it. I’ve had several people tell me that they keep it by their beds and read a chapter or two each night. I like knowing that is happening.

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  4. I was also bullied as a young girl. New kid in school and all that implied. I remember shutting down with no response, but wishing I could think of a good come back. I wonder, as you mentioned about “Marlene”, how many families foster this behavior.
    This was such a thoughtful and insightful post Janet. Thank you.

    Liked by 2 people

    • As a teacher, I was surprised by how often I heard parents make disparaging remarks disguised as teasing about their children. At the same workshop I wrote about, someone in my group said he thought the problem with sarcastic teasing is that it is too close to the truth and can be very hurtful. I agree.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I remember teasing the WRONG colleague about how her first graders had achieved such high test scores. I say wrong, because we were NOT friends. We were co-workers only, who shared a somewhat distant and chilly relationship. So when I smiled and said, “So you found that guilt, shame, and public humiliation worked, huh?” She was rightfully offended and called me on it. I apologized sincerely. It is never my intent hurt someone with my words, and I’m sure I have unknowingly done so numerous times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comment, Lorie. I think it exemplifies mistakes we have all made. Your strength of character allowed you to apologize instantly and sincerely, which can also be difficult to do. Like you, I strive not to use words in a hurtful way, but I’m certainly I have unknowingly done so. I don’t think my fellow teacher knew the negative impact his Mormon jokes had on me.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I’m afraid I,m the one who uses hurtful humor too often. In my maturity, I have learned to think about what I am saying before it comes out of my mouth. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen the way it’s supposed to. Thanks for the reminder.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Troy, I think your awareness of your tendency to quickly give voice to your thoughts is a sign that you know the impact of negative humor and try to avoid it, which lines you up with the good guys. We all fail at times, but at least we know we’ve done it, and strive not to.

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  7. During my days in secondary school, nearly every joke I heard was pretty much an insult in disguise, I’ll even admit that I was like this as well and my response to hurtful comments was to make an even more offensive one. I learnt the hard way that, that’s not the way forward as it lost me a few friends. You’re workshop teacher sounds like a very wise person.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. So much insight to the pain our flippant one-liners cause. We all need to be reminded that what is funny one time with someone may not be quite as funny the next time. How our humour is received depends on how others are travelling at the time and I am not talking about sarcasm, discrimination or racism. Often we can just be being genuinely funny and we need the emotional intelligence to know when “funny” is going to be received as such. Great post and thouoght provoking. Linda 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love the wisdom in “How our humour is received depends on how others are travelling at the time.” You are so right. How I respond to jokes about my height is much different now that it was when I was in jr. high. I found your comment as thought-provoking as you found my post, Linda. Thank you.

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  9. Excellent post Janet. It really makes one think and ponder how jokes or making fun of one’s ethnicity or religion. Thinking back I have to admit I probably did hurt some people with jokes like that. What a great quote to end the workshop with, and I was amazed to see that it was by Charlie Chaplin. Thank you for sharing.

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    • I’ve never forgotten the quote, which, as you noted, was especially meaningful coming from Charlie Chaplin. I think all of us have told jokes that, in retrospect, we might not have; but that is called being human. We need to forgive ourselves and be more thoughtful about the humor we use in the future: another thing I learned in the workshop.

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  10. “My pain may be the reason for somebody’s laugh. But my laugh must never be the reason for somebody’s pain.”
    Charlie Chaplin
    I agree, I should watch myself that my laugh is not the reason for somebody’s pain. But then it is still difficult to put up with somebody’s laugh that is causing me pain.
    Thankfully, this did not happen to me very often.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. I always found the Mormon girls to be beautiful and well kept–I like the fresh look, and the ribbons in the hair. They were just a little too spooky for me. 🙂
    I remember being told that if you had to make fun of how people talk or look, you were’t very intelligent. I remember it when I hear Limbaugh do it, and I think, “That’s true.”
    Personally, I found that when I explained to the offending party that if they didn’t knock it off I was going to stick my thumb in their eye, they stopped. Yep, I resort to violence to get em off my back: it works, it’s fast, and it lasts a long time. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Pingback: What’s So Funny About That? | Aunt Beulah | Just Olga

  13. This is an interesting post Janet.

    I know I have used humor in a hurtful way, especially when I was in high school and wanted to “go along” with the popular crowd. I’m embarrassed about it now, but it does seem to be quite common—I was teased and taunted mercilessly for my teenaged acne, for instance.

    I would like to see more people called-out for their pitiless attempts to use humor at someone else’s expense and your workshop sounds like a good experience, but I wonder if we’ll ever change human nature with regards to snarky, sarcastic comments.

    And actually, it’s quite popular to use humor to poke fun at people, or to put them down. Think of all of those famous celebrity “roasts” of the 1970s. I wonder why that is—could it be because that’s the easiest way for us humans to use “humor”?

    Again, your excellent writing has given me something to ruminate about.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I, too, have often wondered what it is that drives humans to use put-down humor, Rita, and your reasoning that humans find it easy to use that kind of humor is as good a reason as any I have thought of.

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  14. I don’t respond to hurtful comments directed at me that are supposed to be funny. I give a scowling look, turn, and walk away, or at least ignore the person from that moment on forward. Those type of people are begging for a response. I will not give one to them.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I have always lived to laugh, yet have oft been misunderstood for it.Yesterday at work we received a bottle of almond extract, safety seal intact, yet empty,we all had a guffaw over it, until the boss lady, put on her spectacles , and could not figure it out. ..one of the fellows intervened to save her. Harmless seeming fun can hurt indeed. This is a fine, and timely post, thanks Janet.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great anecdote, Sheila. There’s nothing worse than not getting a good joke everyone else is having fun with. I’m glad someone intervened to save her. And, yes, watching the news each day does make the idea of combating negative humor seem timely indeed.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Janet, left the almond extract on the “Staff free Things Shelf”, and someone has snecked it away…we once had a similar empty case of potato chips that caused dismay…one day you will be on a stamp or coin, after The Wisdom Revolution-we must believe.

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      • I’m honored by the stamp or coin idea, but I think I’d rather just be remembered fondly by my readers, friends, and loved ones. When I die, I’ll rely on you to promote that notion. And, about the Wisdom Revolution: I’m a believer, especially in the Wisdoms of Godfrey.

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  16. A thoughtful post Janet. I love many uses of humor, but when it is used to single out or harm a person or group, It is no longer funny. It is a dilemma on how we handle the offender. I find giving them the “look” (ask my kiddos about that one) to be pretty effective. As, I grow older I find that I am less afraid to speak out.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think your “look” is probably akin to my “teacher look,” which I have used on adults as much as children. Later, when I was calmer, I wished I had thought to use it on my young students’ sibling. Good for you for speaking out. In recent years, I have found it easier to do so as well.

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  17. This is a timely piece; thank you for taking the time to share your experiences. I love how the lady in your group handles “humor.” My daughter is Asian and quite tiny (26 years old, weighs 85 lbs.). When she was repeatedly asked about her size as a child–from children AND adults–she’d come home uneasy and frustrated, never sure what to say. Some people tried to hide their curiosity under the guise of humor, exactly the opposite of how it was received. I began working with her on a response that would essentially do the same thing as the woman’s response in your group. I’d say to my daughter, “When they are finished with their comment or question, look them in the eye and say, ‘Why would you ask me that?’ ” It works like a charm. It redirects their often unfeeling and uncaring words back onto them. They don’t know what to say. My daughter grew weary of those “teaching moments,” but they work and she relies on them to this day. Thank you, Janet, for a very thoughtful post. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Janet, this is essential reading! I read another technique for teachers to use. Give each child a piece of paper and let them crumple, stomp on it, really mess it up but be careful not to rip it. Then the teacher asks them to smooth out the paper and try to remove the wrinkles. She then explains. Even though you’re sorry and try to fix the paper, all the scars remain. Those scars left behind will never go away, no matter how hard you try to fix them. That is what happens when someone bullies someone else. They may say they’re sorry, but the scars are there forever. It’s important to think about what you say before you speak.
    I read this after I’d retired, but I did like the idea, so have put it into a story I’ve written for young people.
    Love your posts! ❤

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love the idea, Barbara. Had I known about it, I would have used it every year I taught, including the years I taught a humor and creativity workshop for teachers. I’m glad you put it in a story to help publicize it. I will do my part by sharing it with my many relatives and friends who are currently teaching. It’s brilliant. And thank you for being a faithful reader.

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  19. Once again, with kindness and humor, you offer a ‘teachable moment’. When I feel socially awkward, humor is a tool. But I know so many times, it is hurtful. However, today is another day to use humor with kindness.
    I love the example of crumpled paper. Just perfect!

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    • I don’t know if I’m trying to teach others, Audrey, or to remind myself of what I’ve been taught as well as having the opportunity to learn more in the comments of my readers; I wish I’d heard about the paper idea years ago.

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  20. Again, Janet, you strike a chord deep within: humour is such a precious thing, and like all powerful tools, is a 2-edged sword.

    My sister used jokes & laughter to mask her pain & discomfort when she was growing up – I am sorry to say that it was many years into our adulthood before I realised what she was doing.

    As I think on your post, I am reminded that there are many folks like her to whom I can be more sensitive, instead of just rolling my eyes when I encounter their grating brand of humour.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your reflections on this post tell me you are a good, kind person. I, too, know the temptation of rolling my eyes when perhaps I should be thinking about the reasons behind a person’s behavior. Thank you for giving me something to think about this morning.

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  21. Maya Angelou used to say she would not tolerate certain words or attitudes in her home. And supposedly, she did throw people out of a party for just that–words or attitudes she found offensive. At the time, I thought it extreme–but now I think, how freeing to keep your most intimate environment sacred.

    Liked by 1 person

  22. I really love this. I have been thinking about how I respond to mean humor and bullies since I read the post. I tend to smile and laugh uneasily and then wake up in the middle of the night with what I should have said – weather its directed at me or others. I’m trying to do better speaking up and it does get easier with age – I have much less tolerance of meanness.

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  23. Hi Aunt Beulah
    Annie from Australia putting her two bobs worth in here and I just can’t stop putting myself in Marlene’s place, having my snotty nose brother calling me a toad, then worse again my folks finding it acceptable and funny. All I can say is had I been with Marlene I would have ( as a child that is ), given her infuriating brother a tongue lashing of sorts and possibly a kick in the shins to go on with. All the while hoping my actions would wipe the smile off Marlene’s parents faces and give her sarcastic little brother something to think about before he called his sister a toad again.
    I hope Marlene fully recovered fom her families despicable bullying and smashed life out of the ball park, realised she was in fact an amazingly beautiful princess and had a heart of gold to match.
    She didn’t have to worry anymore about her brother calling her names and her folks snide chuckles because Annie took care of them for her….
    Oh!! and the teacher, well I’m pretty sure your jaw is still on the ground Aunt Beulah….
    The matronly lady with a nice smile in your discussion group, now she hit the nail on the head, if only you had thought to respond to your lounge colleague with ” What’s so funny about that?”.. then land a swift right to his jaw ( my suggestion, not the lady’s ), you may have spared many mormon girls copping the same sarcastic spray from that hurtful twat.
    I am much less aggressive now that I am an adult Aunt Beulah, I promise!! Age is a marvelous thing, now in all my wisdom I would be more likely to wonder what insecurities lie behind the sarcasm, I’d listen and then ask ” What’s so funny about that “. Then while the sarcastic so called funny person scratched their head, I’d have a quiet chuckle and walk away.
    ‘ and they wouldn’t want to come after me Aunt Beulah or else!!!! hahaha!!!!
    I love your stories, we can all relate!!
    I love you too Aunt Beulah, I wanted to let you know I am going great, thankyou so much for all your care and support.
    Biggest hugs heading your way
    From
    Annie in Australia 🌞 🌴 🌊 💜 💜

    Liked by 1 person

    • There it is, Annie, the ray of sunshine I was missing, and it felt as warm and comforting and delicious as I thought it would. It’s so good to hear you’re doing well and still handing out hugs whether we deserve them or not. I wish I’d had your mean little self at my side to handle Marlene’s brother and the faculty comedienne.I’d have cheered when you bopped them, then taken you out for a cuppa and warm muffin. Marlene came to my classroom after school to see me when she was in high school. She was, indeed, beautiful and smart and headed to college to be a veterinarian. I didn’t hear from her after that, but I’m sure she was successful. So lovely to hear from feisty Annie, my friend from Australia with a heart as big as all outdoors. Hugs headed your way as well.

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