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  • Writer's pictureJonathan E. Pearl

Humour in Conflict

Updated: Aug 25, 2021

They say that ‘laughter is the best medicine’. And humour can indeed play a vital role in building camaraderie and a shared sense of purpose during conflict. But humour can also be deliberately, or accidentally, alienating, demonising or downright hurtful.

If you’ve been in tough negotiations or conflict resolutions or worked amongst any group of people, anywhere in the world, you will have experienced black humour. This can sometimes be shocking – it’s meant to be. But making fun of one’s own group and the “other” is common and not always unhelpful. There was even, apparently, some joking in the concentration camps during the Holocaust. There are also some funny Holocaust jokes. A personal favourite of mine goes like this:

“A solitary drunk is sitting alone at a bar, knocking back shorts and muttering “nobody gives a fuck about the Jews!” repeatedly under his breath. Eventually a guy who’s been listening to the drunk goes up to him to remonstrate with him. “What do you mean - nobody gives a fuck about the Jews?”. The drunk looks up. “During the Holocaust Hitler killed 6 million Jews and 17 postmen”. The man replies: “What are you talking about, 17 postmen?!”. “There, what did I say?” says the drunk “…nobody gives a fuck about the Jews!”

Humour can relieve stress in difficult situations, and can be effective in getting people in conflict to see each other as human beings, and not to take themselves too seriously. But care needs to be taken when using humour in mediations or conflict resolution - where emotions often run high.

What Is Funny?

“A sense of humour is a serious business; and it isn't funny, not having one” Martin Amis.

We laugh most easily out of love and affection. We laugh to share meaning and understanding, to make ourselves feel better, to reaffirm relationships and to make new ones. In fact, we should probably take humour and laughter a whole lot more seriously than we do.

Humour occurs in all types of human communication, written, verbal, and even in silent gestures – who hasn’t laughed at Charlie Chaplin or Marcel Marceau? But the context of humour is critically important. According to research by Rod Martin (2007) humour includes four essential components:

  1. a social context

  2. a cognitive perceptual process

  3. an emotional response

  4. the vocal-behavioural expression of laughter

Humour is very similar to other types of communication. A message is delivered to a recipient who then processes the information contained in the message, based on the particular relational and social context. In humour the content of the message is often the least important component in play. The underlying motivation and tone of delivery, and how the receiver interprets the materials, are key factors in determining whether the communication is in fact funny.

During a recent televised COVID19 Pandemic press conference the US President , Donald Trump, rhetorically asked one of his epidemiologist advisers if disinfectant (which has proven to be effective at killing the virus) could be injected into humans as a cure. The suggestion was leapt on by health professionals and critics who were worried that, in light of the President’s comments, some people might seriously consider ingesting disinfectant. In response, President Trump insisted he had been ‘joking’. Given who the President was addressing, the tone in which the comment was made, and the overall context of a worldwide pandemic - the ‘joke’ was not remotely funny. And, to prove the point, some people did actually follow his suggestion.

For humour to be effective, it needs to occur within a context that helps to provide additional meaning, or a cultural lens through which it can be interpreted. For example, many societies choose specific groups to tell jokes about as a way of challenging the power or status that group has in that society. In the US and UK lawyers are often the target of jokes for a myriad of reasons. While lawyer jokes may elicit laughter from many US audiences, an identical joke about lawyers made in, say Japan, is unlikely to have them rolling in the aisles. This is because lawyers have a very different place in Japanese society.

Similarly, joking about war, violence or trauma may be acceptable or tolerated sometimes by some groups. But these types of jokes might be viewed as highly distasteful in societies that have not experienced a similar phenomena. For instance: at the start of the COVID19 pandemic panic-buying led to jokes about people stockpiling toilet paper. But I doubt that there were similar jokes in third world countries where many people don’t have access to a toilet.

The theories of humour

There are dozens of theories to explain why humour exists and its role in social interactions. According to McCreaddie and Wiggins (2009), the three main types of humour are:

  • social (superiority-based)

  • cognitive-perceptual (incongruity-based)

  • or emotional (release-based)

Humour as a form of social superiority involves the demonstration of moral superiority over another group (Hobbes 1640; Gruner 1997; Douglas 1999). In many conflicts, a dominant group will create jokes about the group they are seeking to control or influence. Racist tropes and jokes often fall into this category, as do jokes made by the middle and upper-classes about the working-classes, and vice versa. But superiority-based humour also includes the simple pleasure of enjoying someone else’s discomfort – like laughing at someone frantically pulling at a door marked “push”. The humour in this category has the effect of binding together those who are “in on the joke”.

Social humour also includes the humour of self-disparagement. The Hitler & the Postmen joke I quoted above falls into this category. It is both disparaging and also engendering superiority at the same time – because, objectively speaking, the death of 6 million Jews is ghastlier than the fate of 17 postmen.

The social superiority theory also explains why comedians from a particular racial or ethnic group can tell jokes about their own ethnicity, but a comedian from another group telling the same joke often does so at his peril.

Incongruity or cognitive-perceptual humour occurs when something appears outside normal perceptions or knowledge, and through a rapid cognitive process, results in a humorous reaction (Martin, 2007). For example:

Man A says – “My dog’s got no nose.” Man B says: “How does he smell?” Man A replies “Awful!”

The listener expects Man A to talk about the serious problem of his dog having no nose - a disability for any animal - especially a dog. Man A surprises the listener by choosing to treat Man B’s question as if it’s about the dog’s odour, a far less serious disability. The resulting confusion, or cognitive dissonance, causes laughter. Monty Python’s "Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch is another more visual example of incongruity humour. The idea of a government department giving grants to people walking strangely is odd, as is a soberly dressed bowler-hatted John Cleese demonstrating some examples. It would not be nearly so funny if John Cleese were dressed as a clown. It's the incongruity that makes us laugh.

Humour plays an important role in helping to effect an emotional release. Often when people are nervous, laughter can be used to release anxiety. Or when a person or a group has had a particularly powerful and possibly life-threatening experience, the use of humour or jokes can help to release tension or emotions.

A doctor is standing at the foot of a patient’s bed and says: “I’ve got good news, and I’ve got bad news”. The patients asks: “What’s the bad news?”. “Well..” says the doctor… “During the operation we had to amputate both your legs.” The patient is aghast: “What’s the good news?”. The doctor replies: “The guy in the next bed has offered to buy your slippers”.

Sigmund Freud argued that a by-product of the natural suppression of feelings in taboo areas such as sex, death or aggression is “psychic energy”. Freud said that when we laugh at a dirty joke, the energy that would normally be used to suppress taboo or sexual feeling becomes surplus and laughter is a way of relieving ourselves of this energy. Laughing at the dirty joke not only releases the psychic energy but also allows us to entertain forbidden thoughts. Moreover, said Freud, there is usually a direct correlation between the enjoyment of a dirty joke and the amount of energy that would have been used in suppression. So, in theory, the more sexually repressed we are, the more we will laugh at a dirty joke. Douglas (1999) developed Freud’s theory to suggest that people filter and control their everyday actions, but jokes and humour allow elements of their unconscious to “break through”- creating freedom and enjoyment.

What happens physically when we laugh?

Few animals have the physical ability to laugh – chimpanzees appear to giggle, but otherwise laughter seems to be unique to humans. Laughter is an automatic physical reflex and what’s more, a good laugh is one of the most complicated things that our bodies do.

There is no scientific consensus on what makes us laugh. It is believed that laughter is triggered by activity in the frontal lobe at the very front of the brain, which determines emotional responses, plus the limbic system - located beneath the cerebral cortex.

The frontal lobe is split into two halves, the left and the right. The left side of the frontal lobe is the logical-analytical side. This works out if the sounds and/or images we are experiencing are a joke or not. The right side of the frontal lobe is the creative side of our brain, and this decides if we actually find the joke or situation funny or not.

How the right side of the frontal lobe deciphers what we find funny is not well understood, which is why being a stand-up comedian is a such a niche profession.

The limbic system handles basic human reactions to stimuli such as fear, anger and pleasure. Once the limbic system gets the message from the frontal lobe that we need to laugh at something, it sends another message out which sets the physical process of laughter in motion. The way in which we laugh is, again, not well understood. And many of us have a very distinctive cackle, somewhat like a fingerprint.

Try forcing a real belly laugh, and you’ll realise how difficult it is to fake. Similarly, forcing yourself to stop laughing – like you may have had to where laughter was inappropriate – is also difficult.

Culture And humour

There has been extensive research on the relationship between humour and culture. According to Peter Berger (1997), all cultures have humour:

“Humour — that is, the capacity to perceive something as being funny — is universal; there has been no human culture without it. It can be regarded as a necessary constituent of humanity. At the same time, what strikes people as funny and what they do in order to provoke a humorous response differs enormously from age to age, and from society to society”.

All social groups have the need for humour as a means of creating in-group identity, making sense of unusual situations, and possibly as a coping tool. Humour transforms “worrying inconsistencies into a source of amusement to be celebrated with others” (Barsoux 1996).

Berger (1997) developed the concept of Comic Culture, describing how a particular cultural grouping defines and operationalises humour. Social groups or organisations often develop their own particular forms and expressions of humour. As McCreaddie and Wiggins explain (2009):

“Any setting, whether oriented to health care, religion, social or family life, will have a unique comic culture related to the combination of personalities and circumstances involved”.

There are humorous expressions that are particular to the army: the acronym FUBAR meaning ‘Fucked Up Beyond All Recognition’ and the term “Foxtrot Oscar” are now so ubiquitous they are part of mainstream culture.

Those working in the theatre all know what you mean when you call someone a “wood pusher” (a stage hand), a “twirly” (a dancer), or a “Wendy” (short for “West-End Wendy” or someone who’s appeared in a seemingly unending round of West-End shows).

Amongst those working in medicine, everyone knows that: a “Beemer” is an obese patient (i.e. having a high body mass index, or BMI); a “GOMER” is a patient frequently admitted to hospital with incurable conditions (from “Get out of my emergency room”); a “WWWS” stands for “wealthy white woman syndrome”; and a “Peak-and-Shriek” is where a surgeon opens a patient’s body to find something unexpected, like cancer, and quickly stitches it up again.

There’s a well-known social worker joke that goes like this:

Social worker 1 asks a colleague: “What time is it?”

Social worker 2 answers: “Sorry, I don’t know. I don’t have a watch.”

Social worker 1 says: “Never mind! The main thing is that we talked about it.”

Although some of these jokes and expressions seem rude, they are no more than a way for people to bond with each other, as a means of coping with their stressful and unpredictable jobs.

Is Humour really ‘the best medicine’?

Despite the widespread belief in a direct (or even indirect) link between humour, laughter and good health, the research is inconclusive. According to Martin (2004), humour has four possible health benefits, including:

  1. The physical output of laughter can include changes in the endocrine or immune systems (direct);

  2. Laughter makes us ‘feel better’ (direct);

  3. Laughter makes us cope better with stress (indirect);

  4. Laughter impacts the degree of social support we get (indirect).

There is now a strong movement to include humour in medical treatment including using clowns in hospitals, and encouraging the use of humour in the workplace. There is evidence that staff morale in stressful hospital settings is greatly improved where the use of workplace humour is encouraged. Some of the benefits include team-building, managing difficult emotions and relieving tension (Dean and Major, 2008).

What happens socially when we laugh?

There are usually several factors present when we laugh socially, which are as follows:

- All humour exists in a social context. Some examples include: a social conversation, a speech, an artistic display, a workplace conversation, a family interaction, or a political setting.

- Any given context will involve a different range of cultural norms and embedded relationships that help to define how humour will be expressed – or whether it is even appropriate. What might be funny when chatting to an old friend in the street may not be appropriate or funny when you are stopped by a policeman.

- The underlying intention behind the choice of content, and the tone of delivery are also important factors. A line delivered dead pan may be funny between people who know one another, but not otherwise. Similarly, a comment made with a raised eyebrow or in a sarcastic tone can totally change the meaning of the content to make it funny, or insulting, or neither.

The humour can be expressed by a particular party using a specific means of delivery. When someone starts with “a funny thing happened…”, or imitates a silly voice, the listener is getting a clue that humour is intended. Similarly, speech marks around a written phrase or word can indicate that the writer is not being serious. And artists use caricature (or literally “exaggeration”) in cartoons to indicate that humour is intended – even if it isn’t, and even if it’s not treated as such.

- Those hearing or seeing the joke process the information based on their own perceptions of the humorous expression and context, plus their own emotional and mental state.

Depending on the above factors, in a common social interaction, the following may happen:

  • A natural spontaneous behavioural response will occur, which might be smiling or laughter (this can be genuine or feigned). When people are in a group laughter is contagious. Some people will reactively laugh (or smile) if they hear others laughing, regardless of whether they heard the joke (Chapman, 1973); or

  • The joke might fall flat in an embarrassing silence; or

  • If the joke is seen as offensive, the audience may respond with a humorous retort or heckle, or worse.

There are different patterns where the humour is communicated indirectly, through the written word, via a drawing, or on the TV. Many TV comedy programs have laughter added to their audio feed – to encourage the audience at home to ‘laugh at the right bits’. Research by Leventhal and Mace (1970) seems to confirm a correlation between “canned laughter” and laughter by those watching in their homes.

Studies have been conducted on comedy-audience behaviour (Morrison 1940) which suggest that as the audience size increases so does the incidence of, and duration of, each spell of audience laughter.

Even when you are the sole audience of something humorous there is often a strong social element to it. It’s not uncommon for me to laugh out loud when I am reading something funny. When I do my wife will invariably ask what I am laughing about, so that she can be similarly entertained.

A group assembled to negotiate the settlement of a dispute is not the same as a slightly-drunk audience at a stand-up comedy club, but how they react to humour is very similar.

Humour as a generator of conflict

One of the dynamics of group conflict is that both sides have a natural tendency to distinguish between insiders and outsiders (Been, 2009). Humour can help groups reinforce in-group solidarity. This can be a healthy form of bonding, creating a shared identity and trust among group members.

“Jokes are ubiquitous social phenomena. Many jokes can be regarded as narratives that provide a way of locating both the narrator within their group and that group’s relationship to other groups; that is, jokes serve to situate the self within a particular social and political world.” Srdan Vucetic (2004)

However, humour can also be used to dehumanise the ‘other’, and justify the righteousness of one’s own group or cause. As conflicts escalate, the negativity of any associated humour often increases in both formal and informal settings. Racist humour against Tutsis was widely used by the Hutu in the run up to the Rwandan genocide. Similarly, humour directed against Jews was an essential building-block in the foundations of the Holocaust. In both cases humour in propaganda conditioned normal people to a psychological state where they could do unspeakable things to their neighbours.

Why Is humour Important In conflict resolution?

Humour can play an important role in conflict situations: helping groups to cope with the effects of conflict, and ensuring that parties do not take themselves too seriously. Crucially for mediators: humour is helpful in building personal connections with the parties and their representatives. People naturally warm to people who display a sense of humour. In a study (Hewitt, 1958) 90% of men and 81% of women reported having a sense of humour is a crucial characteristic looked for in a romantic partner. But don’t over-do it: many people see a joker as lacking seriousness, and possibly also lacking judgment.

When sensitive topics are being explored in a conflict humour can allow the parties to claim that they are “just joking” (Swart, 2009) if a proposal is not received well by the other side. Through humour a mediator can sometimes say something to a party that would otherwise be difficult or possibly offensive, if presented cold. And sometimes problems that seem insurmountable can be reframed through a humorous perspective.

Humour as a process tool in mediation

“Humour can be used to break the ice between strangers, to diffuse tension between agitated individuals, to insult and tease, to remind a group of their shared social experience, to soften the blow of an insult, or it can be used to sting and make a swipe at someone”. (Been, 2009)

Encouraging parties in conflict to laugh at their situation, or themselves, or someone else, or using humour to provide a new perspective on a frustrating situation can sometimes help reframe the conflict and allow space for progress. This is similar to cognitive-incongruity.

A mediator can also use humour to challenge some of the assumptions the parties may have about the other side.

Laughter brings people together. Humour interrupts the struggle for power that is present in most conflicts. Sharing a joke can create intimacy between adversaries. I recall attending a tense and hastily-arranged negotiation meeting to be attended by several parties in a dispute. I’m guessing that the assistant who’d been asked to book a room had been given some basics like the number of people attending, and the fact that we might need some food – so she booked a room underneath a local restaurant. On arrival we were all ushered into a dark cavernous nightclub, with red velvet banquettes, complete with mirrored dancefloor and glitter ball. The poor venue choice inadvertently helped to make the meeting highly memorable, gave the parties the opportunity to share a funny situation – and definitely helped the negotiation.

Finally, laughter and playfulness can unleash creativity, leading to better solutions to problems (Houlihan, Maeve 2009).

Tips for Mediators in using humour

· Don’t overdo it. You don’t want to appear to lack gravitas or judgment.

· Timing and tone are everything.

· Ensure that parties can understand when you are being humorous. Humour often doesn’t survive translation. Don’t make jokes when you and the parties, or their representatives, do not share the same mother-tongue.

· Self-deprecation is fine, but certainly don’t make a joke at the expense of one party only.

· It’s usually best to avoid sarcasm.

· Don’t use humour in mediation to cover up other emotions that you might be feeling (like fear of failure, anger or frustration).

· If you make a joke that inadvertently may offend – apologise immediately.

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