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Good Humor Is Delightful but Bad Humor Is Frightful

A good joke increases likability and social status.

Source: alphaspirit/123RF

Individuals who use humor in social encounters are perceived as confident, competent, and more likable. Additionally, both trust and attraction increase when a light-hearted approach is used in new and existing relationships. Judicious use of humor can reduce anxiety and establish a relaxed mood that helps a relationship to develop more rapidly. A slightly risqué joke can help to escalate the level of intimacy in a flirtatious conversation.

Golden Rule of Friendship

The added benefit to using humor is that laughing causes a release of endorphins. Endorphins make people feel good about themselves, and, according to the Golden Rule of Friendship, if you make people feel good about themselves, they will like you. Women who like a particular man will laugh at his jokes, no matter how lame, more often and with more gusto than she will laugh at jokes told by a man in whom she has little romantic interest. This phenomenon further supports the Golden Rule of Friendship.

Social Status

Humor also increases social status. People are highly motivated to achieve greater social status, which reaches across cultures. Humans strive to attain social status within groups, organizations, and the greater community in which they live. Higher status individuals are accorded greater resources in the form of money and social support. The successful use of humor can increase the status of the person telling a joke. Since humor is seen as increasing the perception of confidence and competence, joke tellers receive a corresponding increase in social status. Of course, as is the case with any verbal communication, the speaker must be sure that the words, or, in this case, the humor used, is appropriate and will not be perceived as offensive by the listener. Telling inappropriate jokes lowers the perceived status of the joke teller.

Word Mines

One of the unforeseen hazards of humor is word mines. Words mean different things to different people. People sometimes attach strong emotions to words based on past unpleasant experiences. Normally unemotional words become emotionally charged. Joke tellers do not know what emotional meanings others attach to otherwise innocuous words. Joke tellers often trigger word mines in their attempt to be humorous. Joke tellers always run the risk of setting off word mines, which could be detrimental to relationships, especially developing relationships.

Even if joke tellers do become aware they set off a negative response in a listener, most joke tellers, rather than trying to defuse the situation, tend to respond defensively to the unexpected emotional outburst of the listener, which, unfortunately, only intensifies the initial response of that individual. A joke teller who steps on a word mine and reacts defensively when confronted with an angry listener is often seen as insensitive and lacking compassion. The joke teller, on the other hand, is often left confused without knowing what to do or what to say in response to the listener’s emotional explosion.

The Healing Power of Empathic Statements

Empathic statements are the best way to respond to word mine explosions. Empathic statements capture a person’s emotional feelings and reflect those feelings back to the person using parallel language. Empathic statements acknowledge the person’s feelings without the need to go on the defensive. This basic approach keeps the focus on the other person and away from the joke teller who stepped on the word mine. Empathic statements allow offended individuals to vent their emotions. Once the pent-up emotions are vented, the conversation can usually return to a normal exchange of information. Avoiding a heated argument with an emotional person increases the probability that the relationship will have a chance to survive and grow. Watch for word mines and be ready to treat the injured relationship quickly and decisively so as to minimize any damage done.

Once you step on a word mine, learn from it. Be sure to affix a mental red flag to avoid detonations in the future. Unfortunately, the problem of word mines is unlikely to go away in the near future. In fact, the situation will probably get worse. The verbal world in which we live in a dangerous place strewn with word mines. Use humor with extreme caution.

For more information on how to build, maintain, and repair relationships, refer to The Like Switch: An Ex-FBI Agent’s Guide to Influencing, Attracting and Winning People Over.


Bitterly, T.B., Brooks, A. W., & Schweitzer, M.E. (2017). Risky business: When humor increases and decreases status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 112, 431-455.

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