Humour in the Time of Corona

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Humour in the Time of Corona

We’ve been living through the ups and downs of the pandemic for almost a year now. During this time, as a counterbalance to the worry and despondency, we’ve seen witty exchanges proliferate on the internet and in our daily encounters with others. But does every subject lend itself to humour? While a well-timed humorous comment can draw sympathy for its author, an inappropriate quip can have disastrous consequences for those on both the giving and the receiving ends.

There is more than one type of humour, each with its own pros and cons. Here are a few examples:

Sarcasm is where you say the opposite of what you mean. So, for example, you would tell a bad driver “You drive like Lewis Hamilton!”. Well-placed sarcasm can be thought-provoking and is said to encourage creativity. Used inappropriately, however, it can be hurtful. This means that we should reserve our sarcasm for those we know fairly well.

With self-mockery, we make fun of our own shortcomings. A former President of the French Republic, who was known for the high esteem in which he held himself, once famously said: “Really, you know, my only international rival is Tintin!” Self-mockery is fine for personal defects that have no bearing on our professional activities but should be avoided when it comes to key competencies.

Deflection allows us to redirect criticism. During an electoral campaign, a former President of the United States was coming under attack over his age and mental abilities. During a televised debate with his opponent, who was much younger than him, he forestalled criticism by saying “I want you to know that I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit my opponent’s youth and lack of experience for political purposes!” Deflection may be successful in some cases but it doesn’t necessarily protect you against subsequent attacks, so it’s important to remain vigilant.

Humour can act as a coping mechanism in difficult situations. Hospital operating theatres are highly stressful environments, and the humour you find there might seem cynical to those who’re not used to them. This type of humour, specifically linked to a given situation or environment, should be reserved for those who are living through the same experience as you.

Well-placed humour can help in many difficult situations, but how effective it is will depend on the context, cultural background, group dynamics and the individual or individuals against whom it is directed. Don’t attempt humour unless you have a sufficient grasp of the circumstances you find yourself in. If misused, humour can put a damper on proceedings and turn against you. Used well, however, it can lighten the mood and make people feel more relaxed, all to your advantage!

Pierre Gildemyn

If you’d like to comment on any of my articles or suggest a topic that I could write about, please don’t hesitate to e-mail me at Ombuds@cern.ch.