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Using humor to deflect and defuse

March 10, 2010

Fortuitously, I ran across a pretty good example of using humor to deflect, as mentioned in a recent post, in Linda Champagne’s The Mohawk Nation Struggles for Peaceful Ways:

There he was, on the left side, with a bandage on his upper lip. When our eyes met, a crooked smile crossed his face. “See where your nonviolence got me!” he said.

I laughed, part in delight in seeing him in fairly good shape, part in embarrassment that my encouragement in non-violent action had brought another person injury, while I was untouched. He was also missing a tooth from his encounter.

But what did he feel, really, beyond the joke about his injury? Mohawks joke a lot, kid about themselves and each other. They test your sensitivity, your fragile ego, and measure your character by their teasing words. It felt comfortable to me, like my own small town, upstate background.

It’s not just Mohawks; that approach is also very familiar (if not always comfortable) to me. It was only after I moved to the U.K., and had very good reason to learn more about cultural differences, that I realized not everybody uses particular brands of humor and non sequiturs to make points while avoiding conflict, in the same way. Multiple instances of this falling flat on its face–with the other person trying hard to treat what I’d said seriously, or else just looking at me like I were insane–made this pretty obvious.* I’m not even very good at deadpan delivery. It didn’t take me too long to tailor my approach to the audience, to avoid feeling like a complete ass–both for getting tangled up in the resulting conversational pits, and for continuing to try that on people I have good reason to suspect just won’t get it.

For a while, I kept getting a strong “battle of wits with the unarmed” feeling, but bothered to find out that this is a legitimate cultural difference, instead of just dismissing whole groups of people as dull, oblivious, and totally lacking subtlety. That certainly explained a lot about some frustrating and just plain baffling interactions I’d had in the past.

This is another high-context meets low-context misunderstanding, besides reflecting the level of public conflict that’s considered acceptable. If you consider getting into arguments with near-strangers in a pub (over things like politics, no less**) to be OK, you probably won’t even consider that the other person may be trying to avoid doing so with a maximum of face-saving all around. Ditto if you assume that in any given situation, somebody has to lose. A lot of interpretion errors also hinge on something as simple as how seriously you consider it appropriate to take things in a given situation. If you’re expecting an earnest or even solemn response, and what you get is deadpan humor, teasing, and/or absurd non sequiturs, well…

So, what may Brian Cole (the joker) have meant to convey? I would interpret his comment to mean that he didn’t want to talk about it right then. Additionally, he might still really have been harboring some resentment, and letting her know it without starting a fight; at the same time, he might have been trying to reassure her that he was not taking this resentment too seriously, and she didn’t need to feel responsible for his getting hurt. He might have been letting her know that he was still pretty upset, but would get over it. He was probably expressing some frustration at sticking with nonviolence while getting beaten up, a new experience for him. Had these frustrations not been on his mind–or, conversely, had he been very angry–he probably would have responded with a joke that did not mention his injury at all. (In the second case, as a strong indication not to go there, if she didn’t want a heated argument.) Those are just the main interpretations I would consider–and I could be wrong on all of them. 🙂

His quip, read properly, gives a lot of information on how to proceed with the conversation, including some acceptable directions for questions you might want to ask and expressions of sympathy you might want to offer. If you know how to interpret what he’s saying (and not saying), you can get a decent idea of how to either avoid or spark conflict, depending on your intent.

If you are not used to this kind of response, and do not have enough context available to know how to interpret it, it may seem very strange. He may seem to be avoiding answering you (insert presumed motives here), he may seem inappropriately flippant or even incapable of taking anything seriously, it may just not make sense at all, you name it. And he may think you’re very dense indeed, if you don’t understand any of what he is trying to convey. This kind of misunderstanding can be uncomfortable enough in regular conversation, but, as mentioned in a recent post, can have more serious consequences if the other person is in a position of power over you.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m incapable of writing about certain topics without Barbara Mann’s help, but her Iroquoian Women provides some excellent examples of how many ways this kind of thing has caused misunderstandings, some very serious. A lot of things I still have trouble believing anyone could possibly take seriously have, indeed, been taken seriously–and the misinterpreting observers’ takes are still treated as straightforwardly factual. That extends to disinformation or absurd statements that both parties were assumed to recognize as such, intended to convey “those are some nosy questions you’re asking”, “don’t go there” or “I just don’t want to talk about this anymore, let’s change the subject”, or even “isn’t it about time you went home?”. As a less serious example, one language collector glossed a Seneca phrase that really means “piss off!” as “low bush blueberry” or similar, after his informant got really sick of dealing with him. (Yes, this sort of thing can work humorously, if you’re frustrated enough that you don’t care if the other person finds out what it really means. That got published.)

Yeah, it’s very complicated, and it took me a long time to pick up enough context to feel at all confident in my ability to interpret an awful lot of things. And, as I’ve mentioned, I kept looking for that context when it just wasn’t there, which can turn a person into a nervous wreck.

I can understand both sides, to some extent. When I was a kid, I tended to interpret things more literally, and the people around me no doubt got some surprises. When adults tried the “Hope you didn’t dent the wall with your head!” approach to trying to distract me and calm me down when I got hurt, I just shrieked harder. I thought they were really more concerned about the inanimate object. When they tried the “I’m never bringing you here again, if you’re going to act like that” (or worse, “You’re never coming here again!”) approach to meltdowns and such, it similarly made me more upset. I couldn’t help acting like that when I tried, so started envisioning the rest of my life never again going swimming or out for pizza!

When it became obvious that that approach was not working, family did try to find something that did. (That social pattern was ingrained enough that they kept slipping, of course!) As I went along, I picked up context, including social scripts. These days, I still have to put in extra effort, basically consciously running through mental flowcharts at high speed to determine what the other person might mean and a set of acceptable responses. That gets tiring, and I can come across as stiff and overly formal sometimes, but it mostly works. I know some people, including my stepdad, who just can’t do it. Most people do take this into consideration, once they figure out that he’s just hearing the surface; it usually just gets chalked down to the “he’s not from here” factor, a slightly different version of which has also served me well the past six years. 🙂

BTW, I strongly suspect this kind of thing is why Japan has such a relatively high rate of ASD diagnosis. If anything, their culture has a lot more scripts to learn–with the extra hierarchical stuff thrown in, even built into the language–and you’re going to look pretty odd if you just aren’t good at learning, remembering, and retrieving that kind of thing. AFAICT, there is also remarkably less leeway for differences than I am accustomed to.

Now I feel lucky that I can do these social calculations, if not in the same way as most other people. (This includes wrapping words around distinctly nonverbal thinking.) It has actually gotten harder as I’ve gotten older and developed more language difficulties. OTOH, that–especially combined with fairly high processing speed a lot of the time, so not always as much response lag as one might expect–can also lead to a person looking like they’re having a lot fewer difficulties than is really the case. There is also a lot of room for things to go wrong, and for performance to look very erratic indeed.

Being able to kid around has helped me come across much better, in the appropriate social contexts. It can indicate that you don’t take yourself (and life in general!) way too seriously, and don’t think you’re somehow better than other people. If you can kid around, people are liable to interpret a surfeit of dignity and reserve–to the point of coming across as stiff-necked sometimes–and some other kinds of social awkwardness in a no-so-negative light; you don’t mean anything by it, that’s just the way you are. (That’s the way half my family comes across, which also helps me in certain contexts.) Of course, that doesn’t help people who more consistently have trouble keeping up with/interpreting the joking. My less verbal aunt comes across as fairly humorless and snappish, and more people have trouble seeing past that.

Not surprisingly, I also have to consciously tell myself that, in the appropriate setting, other people do not mean anything nasty by the kidding and ribbing. After dealing with enough bullying and ridicule in other settings, I don’t always take it well when the content and intent are obviously totally different. I even kept stiffening up the last time I spent time with my uncle’s family, who kid even more than usual. They probably attributed it to just living with some of my stepdad’s nasty comments (which is part of it), and did hold off when they noticed my reactions.

The same goes for the related trying to bait people to get a point across. Or sometimes, especially in my uncle’s case, just to see if you can get the other person going. I just don’t have the seven-span skin, and am trying to build it back up along with the rest of my self-confidence.

Edit: I just had to get a giggle, trying to find something else in Giger & Davidhizar’s book I quoted before. In passing, I glanced at a table of “Cultural behaviors relevant to health assessment”, and spotted a gem: Appalachians’ “Verbal patter may be confusing.” Suggestion? “Clarify statements.”

I guess that’s one way of putting it.


* The closest to successes have been with Scottish and Irish people, which also gave me pause to consider what might be going on.

** On one notable occasion, a member of Nigel’s fencing club whom I’d never met before decided to engage me in some half-baked political argument–starting out with “two Americas”, which was the most reasonable thing he said–based on a passel of really bad assumptions about my background and political views which seemed to be based my being a white-looking American with a Southern accent. In short, he rummaged through stereotypes and thought he’d found a really good scapegoat; it was all very unpleasant and out of line. (This is not the only time*** I’ve run into similar, unfortunately.) It irritated me worse that this guy was British Asian–from a Pakistani background, I think–and really should have known better than to go flinging stereotypes around like that.

I was even less eager to engage since I got the strong impression that finding out who he was really dealing with (not the Young White Republican type he bizarrely assumed) would just blow some circuits, and he’d turn even louder and more unpleasant. My self-control only stretches so far (not nearly as far then as now!), and I did not want to test it, especially in an already overloading pub environment.

Besides just considering his behavior abominably rude in the first place, I really did not want to get into a huge argument and very possibly help spoil a pleasant enough evening out for the whole group. Just telling him this outright struck me as overly confrontational, and unlikely to stop the conversation, so I cracked a slightly absurd joke based on what he’d been saying. With it, I intended to get multiple points across: this is inappropriate and I’m just not engaging, you should check your assumptions, what you’ve been saying is very simplistic, and, again, I’m not at all interested in continuing this conversation.

Well, it stopped the conversation dead, all right. Only one (Irish) person at the table seemed to get even part of the point; everyone else who’d been listening just looked at me like I had suddenly started rolling around on the floor and speaking in tongues. I ended up feeling like an ass. That was the last time I relied on this approach in public here.

In cases like this, the best alternative I’ve found is agreeing with whatever the person is saying, to the point of obvious absurdity. That’ll get you some strange looks too, but it’s not like dropping a bomb–and they’ll usually leave you alone pretty quickly!

*** It doesn’t matter that Ms. Cox and I seem to have very little in common; the aggressors don’t care, much less bother to find out. I have run into similar behavior. You’re better off not engaging at all with people who go around attacking ghosts that only exist in their own minds, IME. No win is possible, for anyone.


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