The Two Sides of Humor

“Many a truth is said in jest.” Sounds nice, but where does joking end, and emotional abuse begin? One of the most common complaints I hear about people from family members or friends is that, “She pretends that she’s joking, but I know she’s not.”

Years ago, I knew a man who was constantly “joking” with his family. He’d make fun of his daughter’s hair, his wife’s work habits or his son’s performance in school. They would tell him that his remarks were neither constructive nor helpful. When I confronted him about it, he said to me, “Is there anything wrong with constructive criticism?” I told him no, but that he had to be careful that he was actually constructive about it. It was obvious that he was well aware that his “jokes” were much more than that.

He went on to say, “I think my family is too thin-skinned. There’s nothing wrong with a little humor.” Humor, I replied, is contextual. There’s no point to a joke if the other person isn’t laughing. If they don’t think your humor is funny, then you stop and share it later with someone who does. He had no reply. And he continued to “joke” with his family in a way that resulted in their long-term resentment and bitterness.

Of course, some people ARE too thin-skinned. They’re resentful about the slightest thing, and they hate being criticized, even constructively. But there are situations where just the opposite is true. Humor is used as a way to sneak in criticism and condemnation — with the “humorist” not having to take responsibility for what she’s doing. I call this “stealth humor.” Instead of saying, “Here’s why I think you’re wrong,” the attacker gets to make fun of you for free.

Stealth humor is cowardly. It’s better to own your criticism than to hide behind the excuse that “I was only joking.” Psychological abusers employ stealth humor because they know their criticisms aren’t valid. And that’s beside the point anyway, because the verbal abuser isn’t trying to help anybody. His veiled disapproval is meant to make you feel bad so he can feel better about himself. Stealth humor is perfect for anyone who is too spineless to criticize openly and stand behind his opinions.

Stealth humor isn’t always deliberate, and sometimes the “humorist” is afraid to make his or her point openly. He or she tries to “lighten the mood” while still trying to make a point. It confuses the situation to introduce humor when you’re trying to make a serious point, and the point is lost anyway in the needless hurt it causes.

Some who engage in stealth humor absorb it over the years from parents or others, and it becomes so second nature that it seems natural — to them. I once knew a woman who, while smiling and laughing, would snidely convey her disapproval. I could never quite figure out why she did this until I spent time with her and her mother, who did the very same thing to her. Bingo! It all became clear.

“Many a truth is said in jest” should not be taken literally, because the “truth” is not always true. Criticism isn’t always reasonable, and truth may not always be the motive. Like physical abusers, subtle abusers are trying to gain a sense of personal power and control. And none of this has anything to do with humor. Joking definitely has its place; some of the most effective people use wit and intelligence to blend the relaxing posture of laughter with serious matters. It’s most definitely an art as well as a skill.

But I have watched, in horror, the development of a society in which people have become so thin-skinned and self-important that they cannot tolerate the slightest joke or criticism about anything or anyone. Humor, like any powerful force, can be used constructively, or it can be downright toxic.



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