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Humor In Conversation

( Originally Published Early 1900's )



A touch of humor has saved many a tense situation and has brought sparkle to many a conversation that was dull and lifeless. Remember that nearly everything has its humorous side. When a conversation needs a little humor, be prepared to supply it. This doesn't mean that you should try to be funny. Successful humor is spontaneous and suited to the occasion and the group. Some people think it undignified to laugh at ridiculous situations, and as a result are stiff and pompous. They never can laugh at themselves—an ability that everyone should cultivate. The foundation of real humor is a true sense of values.

If you have difficulty in seeing the funny side of things, perhaps it will help you to know what psychologists have discovered to be the conditions that most frequently make people laugh.

Incongruity is said to be the very essence of humor. If two things that obviously do not belong together are placed side by side, the absurdity of the situation arouses laughter. For example, a young woman told of hastily grasping her prayer book and hurrying to church one Sunday morning. Arriving late, she slid into her pew and hurriedly opened her prayer book, only to discover that she had brought a pack of cards in a case made to look like a prayer book, which her young brother had given her as a joke.

The unexpected often causes amusement. Take for illustration the story of the woman who parked her car before a large department store. She ran in to pick up a package and dashed out, hoping no policeman had seen her and given her a ticket. She looked around and breathed a sigh of relief upon discovering there wasn't a policeman in sight. But one must have been near, for a policeman's horse stood behind her car. She jumped into the driver's seat and sped away. Almost immediately she heard the clicking of a horse's hoofs and realized that the policeman must be pursuing her. Seeing a green light ahead, she drove faster and faster, but the hoof beats kept right behind her. At the end of the third block she was stopped by a red light. Knowing she was caught, she got out of the car, saying, "Well, Officer, here I am." To her amazement, no officer was in sight, only the poor panting horse fastened to her bumper. She had kidnapped the traffic policeman's horse!

Ridiculous comparisons may add greatly to conversation, but you must be careful not to hurt anyone's feelings. The young woman who observed a large domineering woman followed by her small timid husband, aroused laughter by remarking, "The lioness and the mouse," but the remark was unkind and in poor taste, as she was joking at the expense of her fellow guests.

Exaggeration is often said to be one of the most characteristic forms of American humor, while understatement is a favorite device of the English. These two forms of humor, as Max Eastman has pointed out, are really two aspects of the same thing. Mark Twain was a master of both.

The American habit of boasting and exaggerating has it-self been satirized in many anecdotes. For example, an Englishman and an American were discussing the relative speed of trains in their respective countries.

"Our `Flying Dutchman' travels at a rate of sixty miles an hour," said the Englishman.

"We beat that all hollow," replied the American. "Some of our trains go so fast they reach the station ahead of the whistle which warns of their coming."

Absent-mindedness provides many an amusing anecdote for conversation. You yourself may have had lapses of this kind (most of us have) that will prove amusing to others. Or, if you have known any absent-minded professors, you can probably match the following story:

The daughter of a professor called for him one evening when it was beginning to rain. She had her umbrella—a gay little one, just large enough to cover her hat.

"That little umbrella won't be any good for the two of us," he said. "I have a large umbrella in my office; wait a minute while I go up and get it."

The daughter waited and waited, but her father failed to return. Finally she went up to his office and found him en-grossed in the dictionary.

He looked up, startled. "There was something I wanted to look up," he said, "but I can't remember just what it was—something connected with the word umbrella."

Stories such as this are incongruous, in that one so learned fails to keep his mind on simple, everyday matters.

Puns have long been decried as "the lowest form of wit," yet we continue to use them and to laugh at them. A pun is a play on words, that is, the use of a word with two meanings which are brought into ludicrous combination or contrast, as in the following example:

A physician was describing one of his patients to another doctor.

"She is so cross-eyed," said the first doctor, "that when she cries the tears run down her back."

"Evidently a case of bacteria," was the rejoinder.

Douglas Jerrold made use of punning when he defined dogmatism as "puppyism come to its full growth."

An occasional pun, if spontaneous, appropriate, and original, adds spice to the conversation, but like spice, should be used sparingly. When punning degenerates into a habit, it becomes exceedingly tiresome.

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