Tactical Humor for Work and Pleasure
Using laughter as the social relief valve your workplace deserves. Even when you didn’t intend it.
My team just did something very silly. Now I’m moments away from killing it. They voted for a team name I regret ever suggesting. After all, who could take a group called ‘Running Chicken’ seriously?
To the outsider, this probably seems trivial. But working as a product manager in a legacy fortune 500 company, I’m now worried nobody will take us seriously. Next time I go asking for funding will I be laughed out of the room before the second PowerPoint slide?
Ironic, as the suggestion was a joke in the first place. I guess I got what I wanted. Question was, how much should I really worry about this?
When the U.S. voted in their first leader, George Washington, nobody could agree on his title. Popular choices included “Your Highness” or “Your Excellency”. Congress didn’t like that. They didn’t want something that gave their leader an inflated sense of ego or ideas of monarchy. But at the same time, they were concerned other countries would not take them seriously.
A political gridlock ensued for three weeks (they’re first). In the end, congress settled on a “temporary” solution using the lowest, least-impressive title they could think of — President. Hard to believe today.
There are two lessons from this:
1. A “temporary” solution will always be the “final” solution
2. Names do not bestow power; power changes how we see names
So perhaps it doesn’t really matter how important a title sounds. We were requested to pick a name based on a Nebula. I protested, “What's the point in picking a name that doesn’t let people know how hard you worked on something?”.
The ‘Running Chicken Nebula’ that inspired my choice protested attention; individualism in a way a name like ‘Oyster Nebula’ could not. The joke was in picking a name that obeyed the rules but opposed the spirit of the exercise. Clearly, the punchline resonated with my teammates.
The philosopher Henry Berson believed that laughter at its core is ultimately a message to other people. He thought that once you can get people to LAUGH at something, they never can take that thing quite as seriously ever again.
Comedy is probably one of the most powerful tools we have to speak truth to power. Compared with other emotions, humour’s influence in combating injustice is massively underrated. It is enough to make some dictators lock up their opponents¹.
This name may have started as a way to help me feel superior to the situation, but now faced with its impending reality, was it starting to become the butt of the joke.
In the end, we kept the name. The team voted for it, and we will live with its consequences.
On reflection, that’s probably for the best. We need more humour in our Zoom dominated reality. Laughter acts as a sort of ‘pressure release valve’ that helps us get back to homeostasis. All the nervous energy created by our daily work lives is relieved by laughter. At the very least, people will remember what we are called … and hopefully giggle.
But no matter WHY you’re laughing, Aristotle has some advice for you. He’d say, make sure you never find yourself on either extreme SIDE of humour. On this point, I’ll finish with a quote from Kierkegaard.
A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.
Stay funny everyone.