Moving From Toxic to Nourishing Humor

Moving From Toxic to Nourishing Humor

What’s the difference between humor
that helps and humor that hurts?

 By Joel Goodman

Have you ever had someone say to you, “I was only kidding? Can’t you take a joke?” Do you ever feel guilty after laughing at a joke? Have you ever been an evaluator at a club meeting when the speaker used inappropriate humor?

Do you wonder why I am asking these questions? These queries will help us focus on the most important question when it comes to using humor: To tell the difference between constructive and destructive humor, between humor that helps and humor that hurts, between laughing with others and laughing at others.

Humor is a powerful tool. It can build up or cut down. Toastmasters need to look for ways to maximize the positive and to minimize the negative impacts of humor. You need to learn the difference between humor that works for you and humor that works against you as a speaker (and as a human being).

To develop an effective sense of humor, you need to develop sensitivity to humor. To accomplish this, try the following three steps:

  • Draw the line between laughing with others and laughing at others.
  • Interrupt toxic humor.
  • Use humor that is nourishing.

Let’s take these steps one at a time. The more we can help ourselves and others be aware of the difference between positive and negative humor, the more intentional we can be in following Robin Williams’ notion that humor is “acting out optimism.” 

Laughing At Others:

  • Is based on contempt and insensitivity
  • Destroys confidence through put-downs
  • Excludes some people
  • Is offensive, sarcastic and divisive
  • Reinforces stereotypes
  • Is slanderous
  • Is cruel

Laughing With Others:

  • Is based on caring and empathy
  • Builds confidence
  • Is inclusive – A person chooses to be the “butt” of a joke (as in “laughing at yourself”)
  • Is amusing – invites people to laugh
  • Is supportive
  • Brings people closer
  • Leads to positive repartee
  • Pokes fun at universal human foibles
  • Is nourishing
  • Is an ice-breaker

Interrupting Negative Humor
My guess is that most people who use toxic humor are not trying to be malicious – they are just unaware that their humor is hurtful to others and ultimately to themselves. They often respond with, “Can’t you take a joke? I was only kidding.”

Regardless of the person’s intent, this kind of humor hurts. We can all learn from the African proverb, “The ax forgets. The tree remembers.”

So how can we help those who use the ax, who use cutting humor, to become aware of what they are doing and to break this negative habit? We need to be assertive, supportive and firm – and take some risks. There is no single “best” way to respond to negative humor – it will really depend on the situation, the people involved, and the nature of the interaction.

Here is a list of ways to interrupt an ethnic or put-down joke. The next time you hear toxic humor, try out this behavior and make note of the reactions (both in yourself and in the other person). The key is to move from awareness into action. 

Use a quotation to give perspective. A fifth-grade teacher told me her students used negative humor on each other all the time. She intervened by putting up a quote on the board, “You don’t have to blow out my candle to make yours glow brighter.” She called the pattern to their attention, and the behavior stopped. 

Use an “I statement.” Comedian Bill Cosby says that when someone is about to tell an ethnic joke, he simply says, “I really don’t want to hear it.” Making an “I” statement (e.g., “I don’t appreciate jokes like that” or “I feel uncomfortable with ethnic jokes”) can be a powerful way to take responsibility for yourself and to let the other person know the impact of negative humor. 

Don’t respond. Without the reinforcement of laughter, the behavior may disappear by itself. Some people take this a step further by walking away from negative humor. 

Ask the negative joke-teller to explain the joke. This does two things simultaneously: (1) it kills the joke (whenever you have to explain humor, you analyze it to death) and (2) it helps the joke-teller to become more aware of what he or she is saying. An innocent request like this can be a very smart approach.

Of course, there are many more ways to tackle this situation. Feel free to add to this list...and use the responses whenever appropriate.

Example: The Only Way
Many people who use negative humor just don’t know any better – or any alternative. Most of what they have seen, heard and experienced is toxic humor – humor used as a weapon rather than as a tool. It’s no wonder this is the style they adopt. As Albert Schweitzer noted, “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.”

We need to help people see by our own behavior that humor doesn’t have to be at someone else’s expense, that we can use humor to laugh at ourselves and not at others, and that humor can be used to heal rather than harm. We can remind them that humor is laughter made from pain, not pain inflicted by laughter.

Look for ways to invite helpful humor into your life and work. Look before you lip. Laughing with others leaves people with whole self-esteem; laughing at others leaves people with a hole in their self-esteem. Let’s move from “roasting and laughing at others” to “toasting and laughing with others!”

Joel Goodman, spoke at the 2006 Toastmasters International Convention in Washington D.C. Dr. Goodman is the founder and director of The HUMOR Project, Inc. ( in Saratoga Springs, New York.

10 Tips for Finding Nourishing Humor at Work and at Home

Here are a few of the many tips collected from 3,000,000 participants in the Humor Project’s programs over the years. By drawing from these tips and creating your own, you can add years to your life…and life to your years!

1.    Make a long list of things to do around the house each weekend. Title it, “Ways to Procrastinate!”

2.    Have a Smile Day at work each month: free lunch for the 10 biggest smiles in the office.

3.    Seek to reframe stressful situations into laughing matters by asking yourself, “What would my favorite comedian see or say if he or
        she were in my shoes?”

4.    Make your kitchen refrigerator into a humor bulletin board. Keep a variety of cartoons, fun quotes and photos that elicit a smile.

5.    Look for funny signs around town. One example is a doctor’s sign that reads: “Specializing in ear, nose and throat. Office in the rear.”

6.    Turn Sunday into “Funday” by creating a weekly dinner-table ritual with your family and friends. Everyone seated at the table shares a
        funny incident or situation that invited laughter that week.

7.    At work, hand out “va-va-voom vouchers,” which can be cashed in when needed. The vouchers can be good for anything from “a one
        liner” to “five minutes to help you with one of your tasks.”

8.    Send fun and unusual postcards to friends and relatives.

9.    At home, practice playful ways of entering a room. Find mischievous ways for you and your kids to jump out of a closet to greet your
        spouse upon arrival home.

10.    Watch old videotapes of family and friends. It’s a sure-fire way to laugh your way down memory lane.