If you’re good-humored, it’s likely you’ll:
Reframe. Changing the way you see things can help keep the mood playful. The mischievous modern artist, Marcel Duchamp, had sandwiched images of a number of objects—a coffee grinder that seemed to fit at the center of a machine, a funnel, and some shapes that looked like drums—between two large panes. Here we call the famous work “The Large Glass.” The French title, “The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even,” lured critics to extravagant Freudian interpretations. When the work shattered in transit, Duchamp revealed his impish intent. Was it ruined? Not a bit. He is reputed to have exclaimed, “Now it’s finished!”
Compete. Finding contests in everyday events can transform trying events. A friend of mine, a former track star and a fervent competitor, dropped his keys as he was getting into a cab; he squatted down to retrieve them and split his pants. A couple rushed forward to steal his seat. He chided them for their rudeness and, in an elaborate gesture of generosity, let them have the car. As he turned back toward the hotel to change I said, “You had no intention of taking that taxi, did you?” “Nah, of course not,” he said, “But that was fun, wasn’t it?”
Self-handicap. Sometimes play is about avoiding competition. If you’ve ever watched a large dog romp with a smaller dog or a group of age-mixed kids playing together, you’ve noted one striking thing: in the interest of keeping the fun going, the big will make way for the little. It’s only fair, and play depends upon this kind of generosity.
Stall for Time. Once at a meeting the chair called upon me to explain an important item, an honor in that setting, and a generous gesture. Problem was I knew few details. Hoping for a prompt I said, “Where should I start?” The chair expansively replied, “Start at the beginning.” So after a long pause I said, “Greater Gaul is divided into three parts.” This gave another more clued-in person the chance to expound.
Wait Your Turn. Play need not be spontaneous, but timing is everything. The 1988 campaign featured a debate between two vice-presidential candidates, Lloyd Bentsen, the Democrat, a wily old senator from Texas, and Dan Quayle, the young Republican from Indiana. Quayle had—how shall I put this?—acquired a reputation for a relaxed attitude toward completing his homework assignments. After stepping off an airplane in Honolulu to address the crowd of supporters, for example, he began by saying, “Hawaii is an island.” Addressing the United Negro College Fund he tried to intone their motto “a mind is a terrible thing to waste.” But he came out with, “It’s a terrible thing to lose your mind!” To counter the general impression, Quayle had taken to comparing his own qualifications to the young John F. Kennedy’s, possibly the canniest and most debonair politician this country had yet produced. “I have as much experience in the Congress as Jack Kennedy did when he sought the presidency,” Quayle observed. But knowing the weak talking point would come up, Bentsen came prepared. “I served with Jack Kennedy,” Bentsen said, “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” Badabinga!
Keep your comeback brief. Players know the value of a wisecrack. A British friend of mine has an Irish last name. I wanted to know how his family made their way to England. “In a coracle, I expect,” he replied. The French philosophe, Voltaire, didn’t think much of Charlemagne, the exalted King of the motley Franks, and derided the patchwork territory he ruled. According to Voltaire, The Holy Roman Empire was “neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” When the flinty Viscountess Nancy Astor opined to Winston Churchill that were they married she would poison his tea, the Prime Minister reportedly said, “Were I your husband, Lady Astor, I should drink it.” While visiting Venice the New Yorker essayist, Robert Benchley, sent a telegram to his meddlesome editor: STREETS FLOODED: PLEASE ADVISE. My college roommate, who likes to bask in municipal achievement, took us to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and ushered us out on to the balcony to see the whitecaps on Lake Erie. I remarked what a perfect day it was in Cleveland. “Thanks!” he said.
Claim the joke when it’s on you. You might win with the risky strategy that evolutionary psychologists call “costly signaling.” I once served a three-year stint on a distinguished funding panel in New York that included a number of very bright, witty, and spirited museum professionals. When, as a newcomer and very low on the totem pole, I ventured an opinion about a controversial exhibit proposal, one of my colleagues (a friend, eventually) slapped me down with, “Your notion is either naïve or silly.” I fixed the group with an arch look, raised an eyebrow, and nodded gravely—“I like to think I’m a little of both.” When the laughter died down, guess who won the point?