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Humor: How To Be Mindful

Mindlessness is often the result of carelessness, not malice.
Ellie Lisitsa

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1. Having or showing no ability to think, feel, or respond
2. Showing no use of intelligence or thought; having no purpose

What does mindlessness call to mind? Passivity? Excuses? The complete abdication of responsibility? “Whoops, sorry?” 

Mindlessness is often the result of carelessness, not malice. Unfortunately, the source of mindlessness is rarely the primary concern of its victims. It still hurts!

One of the most powerful methods for improving relationships is adopting an active stance against mindlessness—giving loved ones the attention they deserve. Let’s look at mindlessness in relation to humor, where a lack of care can pose a particularly serious threat.

Oddly untouchable by critique or analysis, humor unamusingly and paradoxically manages to be two things at once: a source of both great healing and great harm. We’ve all heard someone attempt to transform the meanest remark into a harmless joke with the addition of two magic words: “Just kidding!”

The tendency to avoid thinking too hard about jokes is understandable – after all, there seems to be nothing less funny than analyzing comedy. Unfortunately, this isn’t quite true! There is something less humorous, and it’s the dangerous culture we unwittingly create when we avert our eyes.

Let’s turn off autopilot. Some jokes are just not funny. We can see this clearly in our most intimate relationships.

Some mindless attempts at humor include: 

  • Defensive joking
  • Aggressive/hostile humor (such as sarcasm)
  • Mockery (name-calling, eye-rolling, sneering)>

In order of escalating intensity, from self-protection to outright attack, these expressions of “humor” herald the arrival of two favorite horsemen: Defensiveness and Contempt. Defensiveness, as you know, often leads to escalating physiological arousal, increasing risk of Flooding and Stonewalling. (If you notice yourself or your partner engaging in these behaviors, remember to take a break and self-soothe!)

The verdict is clear: mindlessness is not funny. Luckily, there is an alternative.

Here’s how to be mindful:

  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes.
  • Be aware of context and power dynamics. For example, light-hearted teasing may be enjoyable in one relationship, but completely inappropriate in another – it may reinforce a mutually amusing, banter-y rapport with one friend or partner, but be taken literally by someone else, causing emotional harm. Be especially careful to avoid teasing kids, who may not “get the joke,” and be aware that mockery and harsh sarcasm can cause lasting trauma at any age.
  • Consider each person’s unique cultural background and personal story. Be aware of the potential implications of these stories, including enduring vulnerabilities. If you draw a blank when considering this last bullet point in a particular situation, consider asking some open-ended questions and getting to know the person better! (Build Love Maps!)

In making an effort to get to know someone, and then keeping this knowledge in mind as you interact with them, you implicitly send a caring message: “You matter to me,” or, “I am thinking of you.”

In this way, mindfulness creates intimacy. Remember this when joking around, and enjoy its effect in strengthening and deepening your relationships.

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Ellie Lisitsa is a staff writer at The Gottman Institute and a regular contributor to The Gottman Relationship Blog. Ellie is pursuing her B.A. in Psychology with an emphasis on Cognitive Dissonance at Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

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