John F. Kennedy said, “There are three things which are real: God, human folly, and laughter. The first two are beyond our comprehension. So we must do what we can with the third.” Actually, it’s possible to find humor in human folly, too. However, while it can be stress-reducing to laugh at ourselves, it’s stress-producing when we laugh at other people’s personal shortcomings.
For example, sarcasm reflects anger. The fastest way to ruin kids’ self esteem, especially as parents, is to poke fun at their shortcomings. You’ve seen people hide behind “humor” to say nasty things. When it backfires, they say innocently, “I didn’t mean anything by it — you know me, it’s just me.…”
Inappropriate sexual references or profanity can produce stress. I teach a course for people whose friends tell them they are the funniest in the world. They learn about comedy and being a comedian, and it culminates in standup performances at The Punchline® comedy club. What amazes me in these classes is when people bring in their “best jokes” that are racist and sexist. I ask them, “Do you have any clue what’s going on?” and they shrug.
Putdowns divide instead of unite. For instance, sales and marketing departments develop habits that treat each other like enemies — it’s easier to take a cheap shot than work together. But it’s also costly. Stereotype putdowns denigrate a person or group. Sometimes, people who hire me to speak to lawyers say they all love lawyer jokes and I should do a bunch of them. I don’t, because I’m not a lawyer. It’s okay for lawyers to poke fun at themselves, but not me. I have been there, done that and have the souvenir belt buckle to prove it.
Be sensitive to what causes others real pain. You might be okay with losing your hair, but “Jim” might not be okay that he is, too. Poking fun at him since you can take it doesn’t mean he can!
If I’m thinking about telling a joke and ask if you think someone would be offended, I’m actually trying to put the responsibility on you in case it backfires. No one has ever come to me after a presentation and been offended that I was too clean or positive in my remarks. I figure, “When in doubt, leave it out.”