Friday 23 January 2015

More Reflections on Humour

I have blogged about humour before, (here, for example). I think it serves many important purposes, including making things memorable, reducing stress, provoking fresh perspectives, and making life more joyful.

However there are risks attached. One person's joke may be offensive to someone else.

I am in a reflective mood, having just read some feedback about a session I ran in a university. Someone was put off by a joke I had made which he or she found entirely inappropriate. I understand that it provoked a strong response that it took some time to get over, and that was clearly no part of my intention.

I am also keenly aware that if one person gives such feedback, it may well be that others are thinking it. Or they may not be - it is very hard to know.

Humour is risky. The joke under consideration was in the context of talking about time management and Viktor Frankl's work, derived from his experience in a concentration camp. I summarised that he found that the people who survived the camps with their humanity intact were those who had a meaning or purpose in their life, beyond mere brute survival.  I added 'and my hope is that if a sense of purpose makes it possible to hang onto your humanity even in a concentration camp, then maybe it's possible in a University,' or words to that effect.

My intention, of course, was not to belittle the unspeakable evils of the Nazi camps; rather to use humour's capacity for provoking a sharp change of perspective, to help people reflect that however disempowered and frustrated they may feel at work in a University, at times, they have vastly more power and freedom than Frankl had; and along with that, the idea that holding onto a clear sense of purpose is valuable when we do feel disempowered and frustrated.

But clearly, that was not the message received, by at least one person.

I am very sorry for that, and particularly as it detracted from that individual's (and possibly others') learning from, and enjoyment of, the session.

But I am also reluctant to withdraw from taking the risk of making jokes. Maybe that joke was ill-judged (and I'll be interested in others' views on that) but I think that most jokes carry a risk. Yet I would not want to eliminate them all together, as a humourless workplace seems a high price to pay.

I need to think further about this - both the particular joke and the broader principle...

In the meantime, here is Viktor Frankl. I am glad to see he uses humour, though possibly with better taste than I do.

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