What’s that adage? “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.”

A truism in so many areas of our life. Especially in our humor. Hence the sage advice—know your audience.

Several months into the pandemic in 2020, after being subjected to listening to several hundred of my Zoom calls, my wife Stephanie offered me an unsolicited (and unwanted) assessment of my communication style.

After thirteen years together, her diplomacy with me, shall we say, has lessened. This particular day, I finished my eighth Zoom call and she offered, “I notice your humor is often deployed at the expense of others.” Perhaps that could have been softened, but it certainly didn’t need any translation. Contrary to my spontaneous rebuttal, I knew she was right, and I’ve thought about it numerous times since.

I use humor as a tool, or even a weapon. Perhaps increasingly misdirected too.

As I assess my humor strategy, it’s usually employed because I’m anxious or uncomfortable in a social setting. I’m a very competent and confident communicator, but I loathe silence. So I try to “solve” it typically with a joke and according to my wife, at the expense of someone in my immediate line of sight.

Our recent interview with the two authors of Humor, Seriously forced me to think even more deeply about how I use humor. My conclusion: my intent rarely matches my technique. Which I bet describes many of us. Here’s a look at my self-discovery:

  • I employ sarcasm too frequently—it’s typically diminishing to others.
  • I need to “hold back” on what I think may be funny and better assess my audience.
  • Ask myself, “Is this lifting or diminishing to others?”
  • Recognize that those I tease most tend to also be those I like the most, and that’s likely more obvious than I realize.
  • Times have changed—what might have been acceptable (tolerated) humor in the past is likely no longer.
  • Ignorance is not bliss. Rather, it’s a recipe for interpersonal disaster.

I also came to better understand my sarcasm was modeled to me for decades by my father. A fine model in many areas of life, confidence in communication wasn’t one of them. His default style was to tease others, and as soon as his sarcasm landed, he’d acknowledge it and try to soften it with a laugh or feign surprise at its offense. Thousands of times he was surprised as its offense to others. Not so funny after all. In fact, it was quite damaging to many family members, and sadly I think it’s going to be part of his legacy. My father is a fine person, and like all of us, his choice of humor clearly reflects something deeper happening is his life. Perhaps not currently, but something much deeper, earlier in life where this became an entrenched style, a coping mechanism that became a habit and ultimately his reputation.

I adopted a similar style in my communication and for decades didn’t really know it—or at least didn’t own it, until my wife called me out.

Times have indeed changed, and we all need to be more aware and cautious about how our humor lifts others, builds trust, and nurtures a culture where everyone feels safe and honored.

A few tips to consider as you assess your communication style:

  • What habits or traits have you adopted from a parent, teacher, or early leader that have become part of your “routine”? Any clean-up needed?
  • Are there certain social settings or particular people who trigger your diminishing humor? What can you do to better avoid them or find an alternative communication strategy?
  • Try to direct your humor to places or times and not particular people.
  • And as you reflect on when and if your humor is helpful or harmful, consider these wise words from President Abraham Lincoln, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.”

 

 

Scott Miller

FranklinCovey Executive Vice President, Though Leadership