Humor Theory and Dispute Resolution

Who knew that humor theory was a thing?  Philosophical theory, no less.

I sure didn’t.

Not until I took Audible’s “Great Course,” Take My Course, Please!  The Philosophy of Humor, taught by Gettysburg College Philosophy Professor Steven Gimbel.

When I stopped teaching courses, it left a lotta empty time on my hands.  So I decided to take a bunch of these great courses to improve my mind.  Some are greater than others, and I particularly recommend this one – especially if you like corny jokes.

(If you want to skip class and just read the book, check out the prof’s book, Isn’t That Clever: A Philosophy of Humor and Comedy.  I’m sure you can still ace the final exam.)

This post is sort of like a course paper, highlighting some key points in the course and applying them to dispute resolution.

What’s So Funny?

Spoiler alert: There is no grand unified theory of humor.

Part of the problem is that there are many different types of humor.  Prof. Gimbel identifies 30 types of jokes including:

Absurdity:  A joke where the central mechanism violates logic.

Exaggeration:  Something can be made funny by highlighting it and blowing it out of proportion.

Insult:  Put-downs to someone’s face.

Irony:  Results from a mismatch between what is said, what is meant, or what is expected and what is delivered.

Literalness:  When people take figures of speech and interpret them literally.

Misunderstanding:  When there are crossed signals in speech, hilarity can result.

Puns:  Clever statements that use words simultaneously in multiple ways.

Repartee:  Snappy comebacks in conversation.

I asked two AI bots to list types of jokes, and one listed 44 types and another listed 75!  (For simplicity, I refer to humor as jokes, though there are forms of humor that aren’t jokes.)  These include (in no particular order) shaggy dog stories, one-liners, knock-knock jokes, physical comedy, anti-jokes, in-jokes, self-deprecating humor, sarcasm, topical humor, cringe comedy, satire, dirty jokes, deadpan humor, gallows humor, caricature, wisecrack, non-sequitur, spoof, parody, mimicry, anthropomorphism, miscommunication, self-referential humor, local humor, animal crossing humor, walking-into-a-bar jokes, and lots more.

It turns out that there’s a serious literature about humor.  Academics have written whole books about it.  A lot of them.

Analyzing the literature, Prof. Gimbel identifies the following six theories about the nature of humor and shows, not surprisingly, that none of them can explain all the different forms of humor.

Superiority Theory:  People laugh down at others, feeling that they are better, or at least better off, than the butt of the joke.

Inferiority Theory:  Joke tellers mock their own status to display mutual humanity with the audience.

Play Theory:  Jokes are fictions that allow people to play along together in an imaginary world.

Relief Theory:  Jokes present tricky puzzles and listeners laugh to vent the energy when they figure out the puzzles.

Incongruity Theory:  People laugh when they recognize that premises of the joke don’t fit together as expected.

Cleverness Theory:  Humor is an intentional, conspicuous act of playful cleverness.

Certain features of humor transcend differences in some theories.

For example, jokes often involve “play frames” that are different than normal life.  When people enter play frames, they leave the real world and step into “joke world.”  As a result, many jokes shift the frame and force listeners to see the familiar as strange or make the strange seem familiar.  The humor comes from switching scripts in the middle of the joke.

Jokes often involve irony, illustrating how reality differs from the appearance of things.  Some jokes lead people to accept a reasonable but false interpretation until it gets corrected at the end of the jokes.  The jokes are funny because of the truth they express in contrast with joke world.

When people tell jokes, they usually build friendly connections with the listeners.

So What’s Dispute Resolution Got to Do with This?

Dispute resolution practitioners sometimes use humor when working with their clients.  People often enter disputes and transactional negotiations feeling certain about the facts and the righteousness of their perspectives.  To be successful, the process may require them to accept uncomfortable facts and to let go of inaccurate and/or counterproductive ideas.  This can be difficult when their self-esteem is closely connected to their perspectives.

An obvious strategy is to discuss the situation, rationally describing flaws in clients’ thinking.  Clients generally don’t like getting bad news.  They can get very touchy as they may get defensive and not react well.

Enter humor.  By creating an alternative “joke world,” practitioners can gently help clients see problems in their perspectives without reacting defensively.  Precisely because it isn’t presented as a rational argument, it can evade clients’ emotional defenses.  If it works, it can relieve some tension and actually promote better reasoned analysis.  If it doesn’t work, practitioners can discount it as “only” a joke that doesn’t necessarily reflect the client’s situation.

Using humor also can build and strengthen relationships, which may help advance the process.  Clients sometimes are wary of neutrals and even their own attorneys.  When practitioners’ humor “lands well” with clients, the shared humorous experience can be a signal of connection and understanding each other.  This can help build trust and cooperation.

On the other hand, humor can be dangerous when it conveys a message that others are inferior.  Obviously, if practitioners mock their clients, this is likely to stimulate counterproductive reactions.  Even if clients aren’t the butt of the jokes, putting down others can create anxiety if clients wonder if they will be targets in the future.

Considering the incredible variety of types and mechanisms of humor, there is no simple formula for practitioners to use humor in their work.  A lot depends on the context, timing, delivery, and probably lots of other factors.

Not only that, it’s important to come across as sincere.  As I always told my students, sincerity is the key to success.  If they can fake that, they’ve got it made.

This discussion has focused on using humor with clients, but the same principles can be applied to others – even attorneys and judges.

An Example

I cite the following story by Australian academic and practitioner John Wade as but one example of how practitioners can use humor to advance their goals in a case.

I have seen competent lawyers say, “I am guessing that we will be apart on the facts, the weight of evidence, the interpretation of the rules, and what we think the different judges might do with this.  Am I right?”  (Nods and smiles).  “But that after a year or two of negotiation and posturing, we will close the gap but still be a mile apart.”  (Nods and smiles).  “So I was wondering: ‘Is there any way to consider the business goals of our clients and try to find a satisfactory business outcome, before we go the old posturing route?’”

Notice how the humor slyly acknowledges the positional negotiation game and invites the listener to develop a cooperative relationship.

And, speaking of lawyer jokes, you might be interested in Marc Galanter’s book, Lowering the Bar: Lawyer Jokes and Legal Culture, which uses the history of lawyer jokes to illustrate evolving public attitudes about lawyers.  I described it in An Appreciation of Marc Galanter’s Scholarship.

The End

3 thoughts on “Humor Theory and Dispute Resolution”

  1. Thanks, Jean and Rosa.

    Dispute resolution practitioners, including lawyers, occasionally use humor when they feel it would help advance their goals. As I noted, it can be risky and backfire. For example, people may feel offended merely by the use of humor in what they feel is a serious matter, and the “just joking” excuse may not neutralize their negative reactions. Prof. Gimbel’s course is helpful in explaining why and how humor works (or doesn’t). In the dispute resolution context, I assume that a key element in using humor successfully is the experience of sharing of a humorous interaction that signals connection and understanding of each other.

  2. I have had a least one student write a paper on dispute resolution & humor. Bottom line: need to tread very carefully.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.