A few years ago, I managed a couple of health care publications. These were newsletters geared toward people with specific chronic illnesses. We offered the latest scientific research, personal stories, and coping strategies. I was contacted by a medical doctor/stand-up comedian (wait, it gets scarier) who wanted to write a column about the healing effects of laughter and how to bring humor into your life. His sample column was a diagrammed, how-to exercise in how to be funny.
Could there have been any suggestion more doomed to failure? As far as self-help information went, this was the pits.
Don't get me wrong, humor works wonders. Used effectively, it can be a godsend in the workplace. It can defuse tense issues or put a convoluted issue into much-needed perspective. If you have a sense of humor, you can face situations differently, and sometimes ease the stress you place on yourself.
But I don't think "experts" shouldn't be out there recklessly encouraging people to learn "how to be funny in three easy steps." In the wrong hands, humor can be dangerous. There's the distinct possibility that someone is going to say something offensive.
A sense of humor is not about just knowing how to tell a joke. It's a way of looking at life. Some people just don't have that inborn instinct for humor, just as others might be born with a "tin ear." But if a bunch of people hear that humor could aid their careers or their relations with co-workers, what you'll end up with is some guy leading his chart-laden PowerPoint presentation with "So there are three nuns in a rowboat..." Can you say cringe?
As for my erstwhile contributor, I think he was misguided in thinking that an instinct can be taught. (And not to mention, he himself was actually one of dullest people I've ever met.) It's like examining something to the point where you strip it of its charm.
Have you ever been in a meeting where people are casually volleying funny comments back and forth and some poor humor-impaired person pops in with an attempt that just falls flat? The "tennis game" screeches to a stop and everyone just gets uncomfortable. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a serious person. What is wrong is when people try to be something they're not.
Toni Bowers is the former Managing Editor of TechRepublic and is the award-winning blogger of the Career Management blog. She has edited newsletters, books, and web sites pertaining to software, IT career, and IT management issues.