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Your Sense of Humor Can Serve as "Social Radar"

Use your sense of humor to attract like-minded companions.

Source: Shutterstock

Are you funny?

I don’t mean funny in the sense of having other people laugh at your expense, accompanied by pointing, but rather intentionally funny.

The question is not as straightforward as it might seem, for our conception of exactly what a “sense of humor” is can be pretty slippery.

What Is a Sense of Humor, Anyway?

Having a sense of humor might mean having the ability to entertain other people by making them laugh, but it can also mean having a quick wit that is frequently employed to skewer other people with snide comments.

Some might define the sense of humor as the ability to see humor in everyday life or as appreciating the cleverness of puns and other wordplay, and may think it entirely possible to possess a good sense of humor without ever having those around them become aware of it.

In any case, a sense of humor is a socially valued trait that almost all of us would prefer to have more, rather than less, of—akin to the way that we think about intelligence or good looks. A person with an undeveloped sense of humor lacks a social skill that puts him or her at a severe disadvantage in the hurly-burly of everyday social life.

As desirable as a sense of humor might be, philosophers and psychologist have long struggled to understand exactly what it is, or why it even exists.

Chris Rock/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Chris Rock/Wikimedia Commons

What Have the "Experts" Believed About Humor?

Freud thought of humor as an outlet for forbidden impulses, and philosophers ranging from Aristotle to Descartes believed that we are amused by something when it makes us feel superior to other people.

Psychologists A. Peter McGraw and Caleb Warren proposed a theory about the role played by “benign violations” in humor. In a nutshell, they believe that something is funny when it violates our expectations about how things ought to be—for example, when punch lines in jokes and pratfalls by competent, dignified people surprise us with events that we did not see coming. The violation of social norms and taboos are also out of the ordinary, and hence amusing to us, as long as they don't cross a line and become morally offensive or threatening to us in some way.

Recent complaints by comedians about the political sensitivities of college audiences and the ease with which playful teasing can turn into verbal aggression, or even physical violence, remind us how thin the ice that we skate on can be as we practice the art of humor.

Is Humor an Evolved Social Skill?

Evolutionary psychologists such as Geoffrey Miller believe that humor, along with other creative abilities, such as art and music, evolved as an honest signal of intelligence and genetic quality. These qualities became part of human nature through sexual selection, as individuals successfully exploited their senses of humor to both compete for mates and to hang on to them after initial romantic infatuations had faded. After all, if one has the confidence to engage in self-deprecating humor (and to do so cleverly!), one must have so much quality in reserve that there is no danger of losing status by being the butt of a joke.

The value of such a skill in defusing tense, aggressive situations and in managing alliances and friendships should not be underestimated either.

In this essay, I would like to explore yet another possible function of a sense of humor: Might it not be a tool, almost like radar, that one can use to quickly identify and select like-minded companions from a crowd of strangers?

Jim Gaffigan/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Jim Gaffigan/Wikimedia Commons

Schmoozing with a bunch of new people at a cocktail party is an opportunity to engage in lighthearted banter, and other people are grateful when someone is skillful enough to turn a stiff and awkward situation into fun. Cracking jokes, making witty remarks, and engaging in tongue-in-cheek observations about the social world can be like fishing for other minds that connect naturally with one's own.

Who shares your political opinions? Who is sharp enough to pick up on subtle references? Who responds to good-natured teasing with clever barbs that smack the ball right back into your side of the court?

In other words, humor can be a device for connecting people who are operating on the same wavelength.

Observing the performance of other people in such situations tips you off as to who you might like to get to know better—and who might be best left behind, wallowing in indignation and blank stares.

In short, a sense of humor is the Swiss Army Knife of social skills. Perhaps it is indeed a single instrument, but it contains an arsenal of tools—each exquisitely designed for a unique social purpose.

More from Frank T. McAndrew Ph.D.
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More from Frank T. McAndrew Ph.D.
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