A Good Practitioner Keeps Humor Positive

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How to be a Good Practitioner of Humor:
Seven Golden Rules Are Guardrails for Keeping Humor Positive
By Steve Wilson, Psychologist

Humor can help in so many ways, but humor can be very hurtful, too.

Humor can lift people up or put people down.

Humor can unite us or divide us.

When used with skill and sensitivity by a good practitioner, humor can delight, educate, motivate, persuade, entertain, relieve pain, and build self-esteem; it can contribute to healing physically, mentally, emotionally, and even spiritually; it can transcend language barriers; it can be a bridge between cultures.

Reactions can be misleading.
People whose feelings are hurt by humor might laugh in the moment giving the appearance that they liked it. So-called, nervous laughter, being disarmed by an unexpected insult, can have that effect. The receiver is laughing on the outside but in their minds they are making plans to get even, to retaliate, to hurt the deliverer; perhaps not immediately, but at a future time, by withholding support, minimizing contribution, embarrassing them, or sabotaging an important project.

Here are guidelines I learned from Joel Goodman, Founder and Director of The Humor Project. I recommend these for anyone who cares enough to want to be a good practitioner of sending or delivering humor for the most pleasant and productive outcomes.

Because the sense of what is funny is personal and subjective, culture-bound, and history-laden, it is impossible to precisely predict the effect or outcome of a humor message, but some guidelines will help. Here you go!

Meta-rules for good practice of humor: Be careful and be prepared to apologize immediately when humor backfires. If you want to get pleasant outcomes, it is best to know and be considerate of your audience.

  1. The A.T. & T. Test. Consider the humor you are about to send or deliver. With your receiver (target audience) in mind, ask yourself: Is it likely to be appropriate? It is timely? Is it tasteful?
    If the answer to these questions is “YES”, then the humor probably can be used safely in consideration of the receiver’s feelings and desirable outcomes. If the answer to any of these questions is “No”, then you will do better to leave it out.
  2. Eliminate sarcasm and ridicule. Sarcasm is a most difficult message to deliver with pleasant humor. It is a mixed message, most easily confused with anger, insults, and other unpleasantness. Ridicule is the attempt to make a person look ridiculous by subjecting someone or something to contemptuous and dismissive language or behavior.
  3. Erase taboo language. Considering the audience, omit any humor that contradicts a social or religious custom prohibiting or forbidding discussion of a particular practice or forbidding association with a particular person, place, or thing. What is acceptable & appropriate vocabulary varies with audiences. You need to know the difference and adjust your language accordingly.
  4. Don’t try to make humorous comments about serious subjects. It delivers a mixed message. Confusing or contradictory messages may be hurtful and divisive.
  5. Avoid gratuitous humor. Use only what connects you to others. Don’t merely tell a joke because you heard that telling a joke is a good idea to warm up the audience, for example, at the start of a talk or lecture. Use only humor that enables the receiver to feel positive identification with you.
  6. Issue an invitation to humor; never demand it. Your delivery of humor should be a sincere invitation for the receiver to laugh or be amused. It is not an insistent, brusque, or authoritative request. Dignify others with respect for their right to decline your laughter invitation. After all, it’s different jokes for different folks. People do not need to be made to laugh (forced, coerced, threatened). Other people may have perfectly good senses of humor that are different from yours.
  7. Invoke The 5-Minute Rule. Never poke fun at anything that another person couldn’t change in the next 5 minutes. Unless you are absolutely certain that the other person has the healthy perspective of being able to laugh at themselves, leave it out!

Here are a few warning signs on the road to using humor:

“The richest laugh is at nobody’s expense.”

“Humor should be laughter made from pain, not pain inflicted by laughter.”

“The axe forgets, but the tree remembers.


Steve Wilson is Director of Humor Month. A psychologist and Founder of World Laughter Tour, he is known as The Joyologist and Cheerman of The Bored. The reader interested in this topic will find Steve’s philosophy and theories elaborated in his books and in his 80 blog posts.