Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Etiquette of Humor II


Careful consideration of another’s tolerance for humor should be considered prior to the utilization of it.  Nearly all the faults or mistakes commonly made in invoking humor in conversation are caused by not thinking or a by a lack of consideration of what is considered humorous rhetoric. No one responds favorably to debauched humor, which only evokes the need for common etiquette. Consequently, there is a need for etiquette in humor as a natural companion of conversation. 

When a person can tell a story about how their car broke down on the way to the party and have everyone laughing, they’re jesting. Jesting, like the Italian scherzo, is light-hearted in nature. Yet, someone who constantly tries to be funny is generally a bore. Relying on sincerity, clarity and an intelligent choice of conversational subjects, in particular the inclusion of appropriate humor, is safer and therefore a more attractive feature in social behavior.

Some individuals become the life of the party because, in their presence, all feel included and welcome, participating in the repartee like component parts of a fast-moving humorous composition. The twists, personally delivered to the subject by the storyteller, delight listeners and lure them into further discourse. These discussions sparkle with humor and goodwill.

The Storyteller
Hugues Merle (1874)

Other individuals talk and talk to the point that eyes glaze over. Rather than probing for appropriate subject matter; these individuals often race to the finish line without first declaring it a race. These discussions receive minimal response, and in polite company, are tolerated but not always comfortably received. The occasional eyebrow may lift across a crowd of listeners during the story being shared. This results in irregularities by which the group disperses at the first sign of an open exit.

The Desperate Man (1844-45)
Gustave Courbet 
Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Serving food or a bottle of wine at a party provides a good opener for the introduction of humorous discourse. “This is a beautiful D’Arenburg wine from Australia, gently handled through the winery, guided through the Demoisy crusher, and openly fermented by traditional foot treading, which not only takes 18 months of barrel maturation in old French and American oak to tickle the palate, but to also get rid of the stains on one's feet.” 

When complimenting the host or hostess for the time he or she invested in the eloquence of his or her presentation, an individual may respond with a small pleasantry such as, “I have so little time to be creative in the kitchen that this is a real treat!”  this statement can then be followed by the polite, “Do you cook?” in order to move the conversation along or as a potential opening to further humorous repartee, such as “Only when I have to.”  

Asking questions can both initiate and carry on a conversation. Requesting advice can win instant popularity. Asking an avid photographer which type of camera they’d recommend you take on a holiday to the mountains is a good way to break the ice. However, humorously recanting a story about a time when you stopped by the side of the mountain to take a photograph of a scenic shot, only to accidentally trip and drop your camera 2,000 feet down the side of the cliff, can win you instant notoriety whilst eagerly engaging listeners. These are the people who receive the most invitations to social gatherings. Their stories delight others and help make the party a success. 

Humorous compliments, when well crafted, can help alleviate shyness many people have about being too personal in public. If you are one who finds it difficult to deliver a firsthand compliment, you can instead give one “once removed.”  “I hear from Jake that you’re a sharpshooter at the paintball range. What I want to know is, how do you avoid looking like you were just tossed around in a rainbow machine when you leave the park?” 

This self-directed quip does not leave the receiver of a compliment with a mere “Thank you” response or a self-depreciating “I’m not that good,” with nothing further to say. The humorous question added on at the end of a pleasant compliment gives the receiver of it an opportunity to laugh and continue the conversation with something relevant to add. 

When a nice thought about someone crosses your mind, share it. Just remember that there is a grand difference between compliments and flattery: a compliment is palatable, whereas flattery is indigestible. 

If you are the individual being complimented you will want to show your appreciation and pleasure. Do not belittle the compliment or simper it with coquettish gestures. If someone compliments you on your outfit, do not reply with “Oh this thing,” or “Are you blind?”  The appropriate response to any compliment is to say “Thank you,” or “I’m so glad you like it,” or the pleasant “Aren’t you nice to say so.” 

If you wish to add a humorous self-directed quip to break the ice you could say something like “It’s new. I hope I remembered to take off all the tags!” This imagery is humorous and generally elicits a laugh or two. 

Humorous jesting applied to compliments is permissible and generally desirable in social discourse. Unpleasant remarks, or remarks that make another person uncomfortable, are definitely in bad taste. Just as jests that insinuate or conceal a hidden message. The old adage, “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.”  

The same adage applies to humor, “If it’s not funny for everyone, it’s not funny.” 

Humor can be used to make someone less self-conscious of a perceived fault. Imagine that you are at a party and accidentally get a run in your stockings. If you have a spare in your purse, you can go change. If there’s a store nearby, you can always graciously bow out and go buy a pair, returning of course with an hors d’oeuvre or a bottle of wine for the hostess.  If there’s no escape, you can always place a Band-Aid over the run turning a flaw into surrealist artistic expression. 

This "silent movie" behavior uses positive Freudian methods of free association, where poetry and prose draw upon the world of the mind, unharnessing surrealistic humor. Without speaking, it is there for the wandering eye to discover. This transfers the laugh from the awkwardness a woman might feel with the run in her stockings at a dinner party to the inanimately humorous Band-Aid openly failing to conceal the run in a: “If you can’t beat them, join them” attitude. 

Transferring human frailty to material flaws is artistic and aesthetically funny. It illustrates absurdity in social values, visually expressing cynicism about conventional ideas of form and beauty. The ability to laugh at oneself has the broadest appeal, affording an individual the appearance of self-confidence without having to draw negative attention to themselves by complaining, in particular about something that cannot be fixed at that moment. The Band-Aid strategy is therefore instantly recognized as something that allows someone else to hold onto a semblance of dignity in a witty way.

Supreme Dignity
James Ayers

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