Bad situations are no laughing matter . . . or are they? Laughter can be used to relax people, diffuse explosive situations, and put people in a receptive mood.
In the HBO television series Band of Brothers, Easy Company is constantly training. A private asks for permission to speak. Lieutenant Dick Winters grants him permission. The private wants to know why Easy Company is always marching, running, and doing extra training while the other companies are not. Lt. Winters asks him what he thinks. The private states that he thinks the company commander, Captain Sobel hates Easy Company. Lt. Winters pauses and responds by telling him that the company commander doesn’t hate Easy Company. Lt. Winters then clarifies his statement, “He hates you.” The soldiers all laugh. They know it’s not true, but with a smile on their faces they accept the fact and the punishing training. And work harder.
In the 1960s as a young married man, I worked at The Boeing Airplane Company in Renton. This was years before respect became standard operating procedure. “A friend of mine felt he had been insulted. Max, had traveled from Texas to Washington to work for Boeing, which paid good wages. He looked like he was one step away from violence.” A supervisor had called him Gomez, a typical Mexican surname. “My name is Rodriguez,” corrected Max explaining with rolling Rs to give the name the proper Spanish pronunciation to the supervisor. A little while later the supervisor called to him, again, “Hey, Gonzalez.” “My name is Rodriguez,” my friend explained again this time with more growling and a rolling of the Rs to the supervisor, who went about giving orders not noting Max’s eyes which were narrowing annoyance and bordering on hatred. The supervisor moved off to bother someone else. Max was getting madder by the minute. Max looked like he could do some damage. Although he was of Mexican decent, this Texan and stood over six feet tall. He was fast and strong. He had played football in high school.
I didn’t care about the supervisor, but I cared about my friend. He had a wife and child and much of his life before him. I spoke up, “Max, how do you pronounce your name?” “Rrrrrrrrrrodrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrriguez,” Max snarled. I smirked and said, “That’s funny, up here we pronounce it s-t.” Max stopped in his tracks. He turned his head and looked me in the eye. I stared back and smiled. Max burst out laughing. “Don,” he said, “one day somebody’s going to kill you.” The hurt was gone and the violence forgotten. “We both knew the supervisor was not a good manager. Max is the one who would have been in trouble. We got a good chuckle at the supervisor’s stupidity and went back to work. If this happened today there would be lawsuits against the supervisor and Boeing. That’s a good thing. The body relaxes when you laugh.
During the Second Punic War, Hannibal left what is now Spain, crossed the Alps and invaded the Italian peninsula. After Roman losses in battle, the Romans gathered a large army and chased their enemy. Hannibal retreated from the Roman army until he found a terrain where he wanted to fight. He stopped and turned his army of Carthaginians, Spaniards, and Africans to face the much larger Roman force. Hannibal positioned his men and then they all watched as the Romans paraded more and more troops onto the fields of Cannae. “My god will they never stop coming,” asked a Carthage commander by the name of Gisko with a little fear and awe. Hannibal nodded his head and then spoke, “Yes, the Romans count their men in the tens of thousands . . . but not one of them is named Gisko.” Those nearby laughed. The joke was passed up and down the line with guffaws and rough humor. The message was clear, “The Romans are not us. They are the ones who should be scared.” Hannibal wasn’t worried. He had confidence in his men. They were well trained and Hannibal knew how to use them. Outnumbered 77,000 to 35,000, Hannibal slowly unveiled his strategy and the ability of his army to the enemy. He surrounded them. Barely 5,000 Romans escaped. None of them were laughing.
Humor is a great tool to diffuse bad situations and it’s an even better training tool. I like to use humor in brainstorming situations. I’ll make puns and jump in with wisecracks. Some people think I’m just trying to be funny, they don’t realize how serious I am. You have to careful, however. With most jokes there is a grain of truth and sometimes the truth hurts. Humor can bridge gaps, point out new trains of thought, and is ideal for making connections. By poking fun at different situations, employees and organization members have a chance to see the humor in their own actions as well as those of others. Laughter relaxes. It changes the mood. People become more receptive. It can diffuse bad situations, and that’s no joke.