William and Mary religion professor John Morreall has been studying humor for more than 25 years. Countless high-level businesses have hired him to speak about the benefits of humor in the workplace. The W&M News asked...
Q: How did you get started studying humor?
Morreall: I got interested in this when I started out teaching in 1977. I was in philosophy at that time, so nobody in philosophy was studying humor. Comedy and humor don’t get no respect until well into the 20th century. Lots of traditional philosophers and religious leaders, for example, were very suspicious of laughter especially because it threatens order in society. By the 20th century, a lot of people are starting to pay attention to humor. You can see its value, especially its link with creative thinking. One of the things that’s obvious about comedians is they can see new angles on reality—in fact that’s all they do. What made Bill Cosby millions of dollars? It’s that he took things that you and I have experienced a hundred times, like going to the refrigerator and there’s something in it that’s eight weeks old and looks a high school science experiment. You know, all you’ve got to do for humor, really, is take something familiar and look at it from a fresh angle.
Q: But now humor is recognized as important—so much so that places like AT&T, IBM and the IRS ask you to speak on the benefits of it in the workplace. Why?
Morreall: Yeah, I’ve done more than 400 presentations. My message is always the same. Humor promotes creative thinking, mental flexibility, the ability to cope with change, and that’s what our lives our full of. And lastly, it helps us get along with each other, smoothes out rough relationships. Anytime there’s a negative message, like if you’re my boss and I’m coming in for my annual evaluation, if you use a little bit of humor with me it softens criticism.
I’ve done programs, for example, with people in debt collection. It’s just such a threatening relationship if I get a letter that says I owe $800 and it better be paid quickly. I’m automatically going to be on the defensive. But I’ve done programs where I brainstorm, trying to figure out how can we use humor to soften that. Let me give you a simple example. This is a middle paragraph from a debt collection letter: It says, “We appreciate your business. But please give us a break. Your account is overdue 10 months. That means we’ve carried you longer than your mother did.” Then there’s the standard debt collection letter: “If we do not receive payment in 14 days we will turn this over ...etc.” The second one makes people get up tight, get defensive. The first one allows people to chuckle and say, “Well I do owe 10 months.” So the softness of humor and the indirectness of humor allow people to accomplish things like warnings, criticisms and, of course, debt collection.
Q: So humor makes things less stressful?
Morreall: That’s another big topic I talk about—stress reduction. It’s amazing. If you read a physical description of stress, of what it is in theblood stream and the body and the brain, humor comes out exactly opposite. Stress has been estimated to cost American businesses $200 billion a year. They look at it in terms of accidents, lost time, mistakes on the job and people who are unable to adapt to new training. It’s obviously huge. At the physical level, stress is measured in the blood with four chemicals. All four go up in stress, in laughter all four go down. When you’re stressed-out, the immune system is suppressed, so you’re a sitting duck for all kinds of things. When you laugh, your immune system is active—it’s more active than it is normally. And this has been measured with five or six dimensions of the immune system. So physically you can measure stress , and you can see the opposition between humor and stress. More than 100 American hospitals now have either humor rooms or a small version which is called a comedy cart—funny books, sometimes videos, cartoons and stuff—and hospitals use this not just for patients but for patients’ families because often the family is more anxious than the people.
Q: If hospitals embrace humor to help ease anxiety, it must also help with grief?
Morreall: Yes. Let me give you an example. This happened a year ago. A woman had lost her husband, and they were very close. They were only in their 40s, and they had a number of kids. His death was unexpected, so she was just blown away by grief. She said after the funeral she thought she’d pick up, but she didn’t. She’d go to work, she’d come home. She had to make stuff for the kids. This was about three-to-four weeks into it. She was really worried because she had a wonderful sense of humor, but it couldn’t kick back in.
So she was fixing dinner one night and, at about 6 o’clock, the phone rings. She picks up the phone the voice says, “Hello, is Paul there? She said, “No, I’m sorry Paul has recently died.” The person said, “Well this is Bob Jones from Sears and, uh, I wanted to tell Paul that the warranty on your refrigerator has expired.” He said, “And you know it needs to be renewed.” She said, “Well we’re not going to renew the warranty on the refrigerator.” And the guy from Sears said, “But Paul would have wanted you to renew the warranty on the refrigerator.” And she said suddenly her whole perspective changed, and she said, “You know that’s funny. The night he died, Paul had me come over, and I leaned over his dying body and he said, ‘Honey, whatever you do after I’m gone, I don’t want you to renew the warranty on that refrigerator.’” She said suddenly she felt liberated. Now she could laugh and put it to this obviously intrusive guy from Sears. After that she said she was on the road to recovery.
Q: Does everybody have a sense of humor?
Morreall: That’s a tough question—it’s one I get often from people who are married to somebody they say doesn’t seem to have any sense of humor. Everybody who’s got normal mental abilities was born with the ability to put ideas together in funny ways. And everybody did it for their first several years. Before kids go to school, they laugh hundreds of times a day. Many kids, when they hit school, dropped off their laugher and their humor because in school, the message is that they are there to get work done. So a lot of people associate humor with play, which is right, but they see play and work as opposites—that’s the mistake. So I think that everybody is born with the ability. Now, what do you do with somebody who’s 35 year’s old and hasn’t engaged a sense of humor in years? My suggestion there is very simple. I say take them back to where they were when they were 4 years old. Play with some kids. If you’ve got kids, play with them more and see how their minds work. If you don’t have kids, rent some, borrow some, but in any case go back and see how fun it was. With a boss, suppose your boss is utterly with out humor. I say start off small, don’t start off with humor about them because they would probably feel threatened by that. Start off with humor about you. If you’re my boss, you’re going to be willing to laugh about something—it shouldn’t be something that makes you look incompetent but just some mistake you made, some simple mistake. Everybody is willing to laugh at other people.
Q: What effect has growing sensitivity to political correctness had on humor and the appropriateness of humor in the workplace?
Morreall: Some of it has been positive, some of it has been negative. Let’s take the positive first. Before 1965 or 1970, if you went to a standard group of men, like a rotary club or any of these communal fraternal organizations, and you had somebody telling jokes, you could expect to hear a mother-in-law joke and you could expect to hear a joke about blacks. Racist humor and sexist humor were all over the place. I think that it is humor though, because it’s designed to amuse people. It’s got a punch line, so the fact that we disapprove of it doesn’t mean it’s not humor, it’s just objectionable humor. So I put everything that’s designed to make people laugh in the category of humor and then I distinguish. So, sexist jokes and racist jokes were common. What’s good about this increased sensitivity is that people don’t tell those anymore—at least they are not acceptable anymore, so that’s the good thing. So what’s the down side? The down side is people went overboard and said we shouldn’t allow a joke which might hurt anybody’s feelings, ever. That’s just way too protective. If every time I told a funny story I had to think if anybody possibly might be offended by this, I’m going to have to shut up. There’s going to be no risk taking. There’s going to be no adventure. So my basic principle is that if you are going to amuse people with a funny story or joke or whatever, ask yourself if a reasonable person would be offended by this. Even if it’s a joke which puts down a group, there are positive ways of doing that and negatives.
Q: There are positive ways of putting down groups?
Morreall: Yes. The negative way is to be sarcastic, but I can joke about my own group. I distinguish between sarcasm and kidding. Kidding is when, suppose you and I are university professors, and we tell jokes about ourselves. A lot of groups tell jokes about themselves as a way of boosting camaraderie. You know this with your friends, if your friends kid you about something—even if it makes you look silly—it feels good to be kidded. If you went to a group of your oldest friends and they didn’t kid you for a week about something, if they didn’t kid you about anything that you had ever done wrong, you wouldn’t feel like they really cared about you. So it’s an expression of friendship, even love. That’s why filtering out all humor, even ethnic humor, is just a mistake, because ethnic humor isn’t aggression. Humor has been used as a put-down for a group, I won’t deny that, but even then it wasn’t necessarily hateful. It may have been done by people who were racists but it wasn’t their most aggressive moment. When people really hate each other, they do more than tell jokes. The ethics of humor is something I’ve thought a lot about, and I think most people just don’t understand it. Humor isn’t an attack—it’s a kind of playfulness most of the time.
Q: So what is humor?
Morreall: I work with a theory of humor which has a fancy name but it’s not a hard idea. It’s the incongruity theory of laughter. Incongruity is a mismatch between my ideas and my experience. It’s a discrepancy between what I expect and what I get. So humor is based on experiencing something that doesn’t fit your idea of how stuff is supposed to go but somehow enjoying it. There are two parts to it: first, you’re surprised, you get something that doesn’t fit your expectation. But secondly you somehow get a kick out of it; you enjoy it. So humor is the enjoyment of incongruity. Human beings are the only ones who can enjoy incongruity. If your cat usually gets its meal at 6 o’clock in the kitchen, and you move the food out to the porch, or you don’t feed it, or you put a bowling ball there instead of food, you’re not going to get even a smile. Your cat’s going to be upset. Animals can’t rise above their own situation and enjoy the surprise. Only humans can. Only humans are able to laugh. So my definition of humor is having something happen that you weren’t ready for but enjoying it.