During this pandemic, I’ve received many emails from family and friends with jokes about muddling through. I’ve listened to funny songs about staying safe and watched hilarious videos about the difficulties of sewing a face mask for the first time. Humor often turned around a tedious and boring day. I love humor.
Here is why that humor works:
- It includes all of us. When humor is aimed at one particular group on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation, country of origin, or any other grouping, and especially if it aims at belittling that group, it is not humor but attack.
- It is good-natured. When humor aims to demean another person, especially a person with less power, it is bullying.
- It is appropriate. Suffering can be laughed at but not at the expense of the person who is suffering.
- It invites us to laugh at ourselves. Laugh at yourself whenever you like but think carefully before laughing at someone else if they did not invite the laughter.
- It doesn’t need an apology. “I was only joking” is not an apology. It is the last retreat of bullying, aggressive, and clueless adults–and perfectly normal five-year-olds.
When you use humor in your writing–and you should–make sure that it fits all the criteria above. As Jerry Seinfeld says in one of his specials, people think that what he does is easy. He just gets up on a stage and says humorous things and people laugh. But he spent years finding the right combination of words that made people laugh–instead of, for example, running him out of town, tarred and feathered.
Even appropriateness, possibly the easiest criteria, can be hard to judge. I once had a client, a plumber, who wanted to fill his website home page with bathroom humor. But most people who desperately need a plumber are not in the mood for bathroom humor. If you don’t know your audience or their circumstances, be cautious.
Humor that is aimed at yourself or that plays on words is almost always safe. But if ever your humor misfires, apologize–really apologize. For humor gone wrong, it’s the only grown-up response.
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