“I Was Only Joking”


I’ll give you an example of an ill-timed joke. It happened during the oral examination for my Masters thesis at Northwestern. Oral exams tend to generate a good deal of anxiety in the examinee, and I was no exception to this. The protocol is that the examining committee first meets together and then calls you into the room to join them. After exchanging greetings, the chairman of the committee, your thesis advisor, opens the gathering to questions from the other committee members. And so it was that Philip Brickman asked me the first question, beginning just this way:

There is a very serious problem with this thesis.

Dead silence ensued. My anxiety level went up 400%. I began to imagine my future taking a very wrong turn into four lanes of on-coming traffic. And then, after a pause that seemed to last for ages, he turned to the “Acknowledgements” section of the thesis and said:

Philip is spelled with one “L.”

Philip was calling attention to the fact that I had spelled his name “Phillip,” with two “Ls.” I have no memory of exactly what happened immediately after, although I can imagine that everyone laughed. I certainly was relieved; maybe that was Phil’s intent. But, however funny or well-intentioned, it was also a bad joke, one totally at my expense and possible only because of the vulnerability of anyone sitting for an oral exam, and Phil’s authority as one of the examiners. I had no residual resentment toward Phil, who was otherwise always more than pleasant toward me and, I should add, quite a significant research psychologist. But, I give you this example to point out that humor at another’s expense is a problematic undertaking.

I am sure that there are very few of us who haven’t ever taken advantage of the insecurity, vulnerability, or anxiety of someone, to make just such a remark as Phil made. I’ve certainly done it. It is a very human thing to do. And worse if it is done in front of an audience than one-on-one. I’m raising the point only because sometimes people who are sarcastic or mean-spirited do this with regularity and glee. And often, if the target of the humor complains, the jokester will blame the alleged “over-sensitivity” of the person who is the butt of his comment with admonishing words like, “you can’t take a joke,” “I was only kidding,” or “you are too sensitive.”

Maybe, maybe not.

But, once done, we owe the person who we toyed with the courtesy to respect his wishes and whatever sensitivities he does have, whether “over” sensitive or not. To do so is the civil and polite thing to do. Children are especially easy targets for barbs of the kind I’m describing and need particular respect, I think. Life is tough enough for the little guys and girls without adults taking advantage of their unshielded tenderness. That, at least, is my 2 cents on the subject.

And, if you are curious, I did pass the oral exam!

The image above is that of a Laughing Fool (ca. 1500) sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

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