Developing a Sense of Humour

See also: Being Good Tempered

Some might say that a sense of humour is inbred. It can’t be learnt. But how then would you explain the fact that children have to learn about jokes, especially word play?

Since learning about humour is a part of language development and learning, it follows that one’s sense of humour can be further developed as an adult.

This may be particularly important if you now feel that what you have learned to find funny over time may not be appropriate.

When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

The Bible, 1 Corinthians 13:11

A Sense of Humour

Our ancestors believed that our body was made up of four fluids or ‘humours’. The balance of the humours determined our temperaments.

For example, those who got angry easily were thought to have more choler, and calm people had more phlegm.

The word ‘humour’ therefore came to mean ‘disposition’, hence ‘good-humoured’. It’s not clear when it began to be used for a sense of the ridiculous, but there’s no doubt that, for most of us, ‘having a sense of humour’ means being ready to be amused and to be amusing.

It’s a very human trait, and one that we obviously value highly. Why else would ‘GSOH’ or ‘good sense of humour’ feature so highly in dating advertisements that it’s become a cliché?

But what does it really mean in practice?

Having a good sense of humour is, like Friendliness and Civility, one of the great oilers of the wheels of social interaction. Amusing people, and those who are ready to be amused by others, are pleasant to be around.

But there’s one aspect that’s more important, and that’s the nature of ‘good’ when attached to ‘sense of humour’. Our page on learning to use your moral compass discusses the idea of ‘goodness’, and the same principles apply here.

People with a ‘good’ sense of humour are pleasant in their amusement. They can take a joke against themselves, and they don’t find amusement in others’ misfortunes or in hurtful things. If someone tells a joke that’s inappropriate, they are not sanctimonious or judgemental but they do know how to make clear that it’s not right.

They challenge jokes that are in bad taste, but in a way that is acceptable to others or tactful.

The Benefits of a Good Sense of Humour

Humour is a great leveller. It is almost impossible to remain angry with someone who is making you laugh, even if it’s your child and they’ve done something really naughty.

Once you allow yourself to see the funny side, you will soon be laughing with them. Finding the same things funny also seems to be one of the strongest bases for lasting friendships.

Laughter is not at all a bad beginning for a friendship, and it is far the best ending for one.

Oscar Wilde

Laughing together promotes warmth of feeling and helps people to feel good. Even in the very worst of times, laughter can make people feel better. You may have heard people say that they didn’t know whether to laugh or cry: the two are very close, but laughing feels so much better and is much more positive.

This may be the origin of the phrase ‘gallows’ humour’, the idea that even a condemned man could enjoy a joke. It was, perhaps, taken to extremes by Monty Python in the film Life of Brian but maybe they had a point about ‘looking on the bright side’.

However laughter and humour also have other, equally valuable purposes.

Humour can:

  • Make criticism more palatable. With humour, rather than anger and harsh words, the sense of the words can be taken on board without offence.
  • Allow things to be said that are otherwise too ‘heavy’ or difficult for the conversation, because they can be said more lightly. A joke can often tell a difficult truth.
  • Get to the heart of what matters in a very gentle and subtle way.

Too Much or too Little?

As with most things in life it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

Aristotle described those who push jokes too far as buffoons. He noted that in doing so, these people often hurt or offend others. Modern buffoons may tell tasteless or unpleasant jokes, and are sometimes described as crude or coarse.

Those who lack a sense of humour were described as boorish or unpolished by Aristotle.

They may be over-sensitive to the feelings of others, and go too far to avoid giving offence. Nowadays, we might say that they were too politically correct, or acting as ‘thought police’, trying to stop anyone giving any offence to anyone else, whether the offence is real or imagined.

The danger of this is that it leads to a very uptight view of the world. As we have said, laughter is good for everyone, and the exercise of kindness and tact will ensure that humour is gentle, not wounding.

The Importance of Context

It is also important to be aware of the situation. What is fine in certain situations will not be fine in others. A joke that might happily be shared at the rugby club might not be so good the first time that you meet your prospective parents-in-law.

To avoid making mistakes, there are four areas you should consider:

  • Object – who or what is the target or object of my humour, and will they be hurt by it?
  • Strength – what strength of feeling will this arouse, and is that appropriate in this group?
  • People – who is the audience, and who might be offended?
  • Occasion – is this really the time and place for this joke?

Taken together, these questions should guide you as to whether the comment or joke is going to be acceptable at the time. If in doubt, stop. It’s much better not to offend and hurt people, and if you think the joke might offend someone who is listening, then don’t tell it.

Remember that the same joke may be amusing and appropriate in some places, and with some audiences, but wildly inappropriate and offensive at other times.

A ‘good’ sense of humour means tactful, pleasant fun that does not cause offence in those who are listening.

If you cause offence, that does not make the person whom you have offended ‘humourless’ or ‘no fun’. It is your problem, not theirs, and you need to make it right.

If you do get it wrong, don’t hesitate to apologise. You will know straight away because there will be sharp intakes of breath, or people will look offended. Stop immediately and make a simple apology, such as:

‘I’m so sorry, that was inappropriate. Please forgive me for causing offence.’

You probably won’t be forgiven immediately, but your apology will be remembered and may mean that you are eventually excused. Likewise, if you later find that a joke has offended someone, then apologise to them personally. A genuine apology will go a long way to mitigate offence. It is, however, never the right time to try another joke!