What’s Funny About That?

kitten and dogs

On a recent lazy Sunday morning as my sweetie and I were sipping coffee in bed, I glanced through the email on my iPad with the vague intention of clearing out my overflowing email inbox.  As I ruthlessly pressed delete for any number of ads and notifications, I noticed that a friend with a quirky sense of humor had sent me a link to a video. I was tempted to zap it—let’s just say that his sense of humor and mine are often a mismatch.  But the alarmed expression on the young woman’s face on the video screen pulled me in, so I clicked on the arrow.  During the next few minutes I laughed so hard that I cried—and just about spilled my coffee.  I’ve watched the video several times since then and shared it with friends.  I continue to laugh just thinking about it. Now I’m interested in why I’m laughing because we can all use more laughter in our lives, right? 

What was so funny?  A crew of technical experts set up an elaborate prank in a New York coffee shop, a prank not unlike the old You’re on Candid Camera setups but much more sophisticated.  The video showed the preparations for fooling people and then showed in quick succession the expressions and body language of the people who were targeted by the prank.  They were amused at first and curious, then they were surprised, then they were shocked, then they were incredulous, and in the end most everyone was frightened to the point of actually getting up and running away.  You can see the video here (it is actually an ad for a remake of the movie, Carrie): http://www.youtube.com/embed/VlOxlSOr3_M?feature=player_embedded.

Fear, it turns out, can be elicited easily enough, even among a young, savvy group of New Yorkers just beginning a routine day in the big city. Although actors were used in the setup—customers who sat in the coffee shop and began an argument over spilled coffee—there is no mistaking the expressions on the faces of those real customers who unwittingly entered the shop and ordered their cappuccinos and bagels on a morning they expected to be like any other.  One young woman had her phone camera out and tried to take a picture until she, too, quickly backed away in fright.  The two-and-a-half-minute video is a great study in how emotions show up in our facial expressions and body language.    

I’m interested in these visible expressions of emotions, and I teach them in workshops and in an online course as part of being more aware of others’ emotions. The eminent psychologist, Paul Ekman has shown that no matter where you go in this world (and he even went to remote villages untouched by western civilization), people recognize at least seven “universal” facial expressions.  Recognizing and being sensitive to others’ emotional expressions is a major aspect of Emotional Intelligence, and it is possible to learn how to better understand how people feel by learning about what is revealed in their expressions and in the ways they hold or move their bodies. 

But I’m even more curious about why I find watching this video and the frantic fright and flight of the coffee shop customers—funny! Is it some sadistic streak that I keep hidden from myself—I who like to think of myself as kind and empathetic?  Does my enjoyment come from the fact that I’m “in” on the joke whereas the customers are not?  How is it that the designers of this elaborate prank have so exactly touched my funny bone?  Because I’m aware that humor helps us cope with pain, stress, and adversity, and can help build a store of resilience, the experience of watching this video piqued my curiosity about what is funny.

I found a wonderful explanation on a TED talk by Peter McGraw, who describes himself as a full-time scholar and part-time adventurer.  He has developed what he calls the “benign violation theory” to explain what makes things funny.  The meaning of the word “violation” is simply anything that threatens the way you think the world ought to be—in other words, you sense that something is wrong in a situation.  If the violation is “malign”—someone gets hurt or there are other terrible consequences—we do not laugh.  When the violation is benign, however, we find it funny.  McGraw explains several ways to make a situation benign—when we do not take the violation seriously, when the situation is psychologically distant from us (it happens to someone else, it happened a long time ago, it is just too unreal), or when there is an alternative explanation (such as a “mock attack” like tickling). 

So—for a situation to be funny, there has to be some kind of threat, something that is “not right” according to our expectation of what is normal.  At the same time, the situation must be benign, although that concept is a bit more complicated (when someone else trips on the curb it is funnier than when you trip on the curb for example).  I have an eleven-month-old granddaughter who loves the “threat” of me crawling around the kitchen island to where she is crawling on the other side.  She hears me coming (I’m saying, “Where is Mia?”) and she is chortling with expectation, for although I am a sort of “threat” because I will catch her, she knows that I will simply scoop her up with a hug and a kiss.  Even a baby finds humor in a situation that is a violation but simultaneously benign.

The coffee shop video was funny for the same reason.  Because I was in on the joke, I knew that the situation was absolutely benign.  The actors weren’t really angry, the coffee that was spilled on a computer didn’t matter, and the telekinetic consequences (the offending coffee spiller was thrown against the wall and rose several feet upwards when the “victim” simply waved her hand at him!) were all staged.  But the looks on the faces of the innocent bystanders was absolutely priceless—and extremely funny. 

I loved being able to laugh so hard!  My work in Emotional Intelligence has helped me realize how much humor can help us live with greater balance and well-being.  Adding humor to our lives can help us add positivity, improve interpersonal relationships, and build resilience—all aspects of Emotional Intelligence.  Fortunately, Peter McGraw has some ideas for living a more humorous life.  You may want to look at his TED video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ysSgG5V-R3U) or visit his blog (http://blog.petermcgraw.org/). Here’s to more humor, laughter, and fun in your life!

Telling Stories in the Workplace

Barry Lopez, an American essayist, poet, and fiction writer, knows the value of stories:  “If stories come to you, care for them.  And learn to give them away where they are needed.  Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.  That is why we put these stories in each other’s memory.  That is how people care for themselves.” 
What stories do you have to tell?  What stories do you need?  Let me try one out on you. 
Catastrophe Story
At the height of the real estate investment market—before the downturn, I read a book that convinced me to buy a brand new condo as an investment property.  As the author explained, all I had to do was find a renter who would, in effect, make all the monthly payments as I reaped the rewards of real estate appreciation.  I was very proud of myself when I was able to secure a loan to buy the condo, and as soon as the property was in my name, I put an ad in the paper seeking a renter. 
Before I was able to show the beautiful three-story condo to a potential renter, however, disaster struck.  A tiny nail in the baseboard inside a closet on the third floor had inadvertently penetrated a pipe and eventually rusted through and created a leak that allowed water from that pipe to first flood the upper floor, crash through the ceiling of the second floor taking most of the ceiling with it, and then continue to stream down the walls to the ground floor.  That, in fact, is the condition in which I found my once lovely property one morning when I went to water the potted petunias on the porch before showing it to a potential renter. 
The condo catastrophe is one of my personal stories, and I like to tell it in my workshops to illustrate many of the factors of emotional intelligence. My audience listens rapt with attention as I dramatize the unfolding scene and tell them how my heart was racing, my blood pressure rising, and my mind jumping from one thought to the next trying to take in the reality and come up with an explanation and, later, a resolution. 
Connecting with Listeners
In telling the story, I am connecting with my listeners.  After I’ve told the story, I can talk more meaningfully to the workshop participants about self-awareness, optimism, stress management, problem solving, interrelationships, resilience, and managing one’s emotions—all significant aspects of emotional intelligence. 
Stories create an emotional connection between the speaker and the listener that is powerful and transformative.  In the workplace, telling stories–between individuals, among team members, and throughout entire organizations– helps us to build healthy, socially intelligent relationships that go beyond narrow self interest.
The emotional connection created in telling and listening to a story is much more than a metaphorical construct.  In Daniel Goleman’s 2006 book, Social Intelligence, he explains how the neurons in our brains—those of both speaker and listener—become active when we make such a connection.  He explains that “whenever we connect face to face (or voice to voice, or skin to skin) with someone else, our social brains interlock. . . . Thus how we connect with others has unimagined significance.”
Every Story has an End
Oh—are you are wondering about what happened with that condo?  It was not a simple problem to resolve as it involved the developer, the homeowner’s association, the sub-contractor who installed the baseboards, more than one insurance company, a couple of attorneys, a realtor, a mold expert, and . . . well, you get the picture.  But it was resolved successfully—with many lessons along the way about the importance of emotional intelligence.
Learning to tell stories in the context of the workplace is just one technique that can be learned to enhance emotional intelligence and create more effective teams and organizations.  Telling our stories, as Barry Lopez so eloquently writes, “is how people care for themselves.” It’s also a way of demonstrating emotional intelligence—of improving interactions with others, building teams and support networks, and motivating people to work together with success, satisfaction, and enhanced well-being.
What stories do you have to tell?