How do you hide a dollar from a EM doc? Put it in the past medical history.

Have you ever thought about why a joke is funny? Humor is ever present in our social interactions, and when it goes well, it strengthens the exchange between the audience and the person delivering the joke. Because we expect humor to be positive, it can be disconcerting when a joke falls flat. It is even worse when a joke leads to a person feeling badly.

To understand the dynamics of a joke, we have to break down a process that often occurs spontaneously. The act of telling a joke involves three entities: the person telling the joke, the recipient of the joke, and the subject(s) of the joke. Often, the subject of a joke may be the person telling the joke, or even the audience, so this third entity may be fluid, adding to the complexity of the joke dynamic. Benign violation theory suggests that jokes occur when there is a violation of “how the world should be,” but the violation must be benign in order to be perceived to be humorous. Essentially, there has to be something wrong for a joke to be funny, but if you go too far in one direction, the joke can become threatening.

Adding to this complexity is the concept of psychological distance, which is the basis of, “Too soon?” jokes. Not only does a joke have to convey a benign violation, but the degree of that violation depends on the audience’s distance from the violation. Jokes about severe violations are funny to people who are more psychologically distant from the event, either by time, by spatial distance, or even by social distance. That is why a joke about finding breast milk at work may be funny to others but fails to be humorous for women who are currently dealing with the stresses involved with breastfeeding and pumping on the job. Jokes about minor violations are more successful when the audience is psychologically close to the subject of the joke, which is why a funny friend may have a hard time translating that success into stand-up comedy.

The act of telling a joke is a high-risk social interaction. A person attempting to make a joke is generally perceived to be confident. If the joke falls flat, that person is regarded to be confident but with low competence. However, if the joke is successful, the joke teller is seen as a confident and competent person. We unconsciously understand the stakes of humor, which is why when a joke fails, we may feel compelled to protect the joke teller, especially when it is someone that we know and respect. However, the need to protect the joke teller may come at the expense of an audience who fails to laugh or the subject of the joke who pushes back.

The pressure to protect the joke teller can come at a high cost, especially when jokes are based on harmful stereotypes. Comedians often talk about jokes that “punch up”, jokes that make fun of the existence of a harmful belief, or jokes that “punch down”, jokes that rely on the existence of harmful beliefs. It is a subtle difference that can either critique social inequality or promote social inequality. There is social pressure for people of color to laugh at racist jokes, and by laughing, they are essentially forgiving the racial stereotypes of the joke, forgiving the joke teller for perpetuating racial stereotypes, and most harmful of all, making a true violation seem like a benign violation. This pressure to laugh at dehumanizing jokes happens to all people who deal with harmful stereotypes about themselves. They are placed in a difficult choice where they must either laugh along with the joke in order to be perceived to be agreeable, or speak out against the joke, usually resulting in strong backlash. This dynamic can occur independently of the joke teller, which is why it is unproductive to focus on the intentions of the joke teller. A well-intentioned joke teller still creates a difficult dynamic for the people who are negatively affected by their joke.

When a joke falls flat, we should be doing our best to listen to why a joke might not be funny instead of pressuring someone to laugh along. Responding in any other way prioritizes the interests of the person who decided to tell a joke at the expense of people who were unwittingly pulled into a harmful dynamic. Responding with apology and a willingness to listen promotes an environment of compassion and understanding, which results in a better environment for everybody.