But am I funny?

A-fest12 022 cThere are advantages to being considered humorous, even if you do not want to spend your life in front of an audience as a comedian. People who communicate with humor are often perceive as being more socially attractive and more competent communicators. They also tend to be less lonely. Students feel that teachers who appropriately use humor are more in touch with them, and workers view bosses who crack a few jokes as having a great immediacy.

However, before you gather your collection of puns and one-liners remember that believing you are funny doesn’t necessarily make you so to others.  There is a skill involved here. Traits that are found in people who are considered humorous include: adaptability in communication, desire to make a positive impressions, orientation towards feeling/emotions, and being able to see the irony in a situation. So how do you know if you are funny? The Humor Orientation Scale has been developed by a pair of West Virginia University researchers so you can rate your Humor Orientation or HO. But there is a caveat, your peers must also think you are funny, so recruit a couple of acquaintance that will honestly rate you according to this scale.

Humor is not just the content of what you say, but also the manner of delivery. People who have high HO scores are perceived as being funnier than those with low HO scores, even when delivering the same jokes. However there are other dimensions to what is considered funny. For example, in a class room instructors who had the ability to get a group to laugh were considered more humorous by students also had high HO scores. The students with low HO scores simply did not see them as being as funny. But maybe they have stiffer requirements for humor, because instructors with low HO scores were not considered funny by either group of students.

A study from Baldwin Wallace University has linked decoding ability and humor orientation. Decoding ability involves three parts: conversational sensitivity, nonverbal sensitivity, and receiver apprehension. The more sensitive the person was to both verbal and non-verbal cues the higher the person’s humor orientation tended to be. However, sometimes sensitivity results in apprehension which led to a negative correlation to being perceived as funny.

Content of humor, however does still matter. Verbally aggressive people tend to use humor at the expense of others. Targeting others for laughs doesn’t necessarily cause a lower perception of their humorous ability but it caused their “likeability” or rating for social attractiveness to plummet according to research.

Finally, understanding the language and culture of your audience is crucial for being funny. On time I sat listening to an educational speaker who often managed to get a chuckle out of others bemoan the time he was presenting in China. “I was using the same jokes and puns that always get a laugh, but the just people sat their deadpan,” he complained. “So I asked the translator if she was translating me word for word or restating the meaning in her own words. She admitted she was restating the meaning. That’s why it wasn’t funny.”

I was taken back that he failed to comprehend that jokes and puns don’t translate well. These kinds of humor rely on words sounding similar in a particular language. I tried to explain that if she had translated his speech word for word it still wouldn’t have been funny and the Chinese audience might have thought his presentation was a bit nonsensical. However, he continued to whine about how the translator ruined his humor, which got eventually got a chuckle out of me.

Booth-Butterfield, S., & Booth-Butterfield, M. (1991). Individual differences in the communication of humorous messages. Southern Communication Journal, 56, 205–218.
Merolla, Andy J. Decoding Ability and Humor Production, Communication Quarterly 05/2006; 54(2):175-189.
Wanzer, M., Booth-Butterfield, M., & Booth-Butterfield, S. (1995). The funny people: A source-orientation to the communication of humor. Communication Quarterly, 43, 142–154.
Wanzer, M. B., Booth-Butterfield, M., & Booth-Butterfield, S. (1996). Are funny people more popular: The relationship of humor orientation, loneliness, and social attraction. Communication Quarterly, 44, 42–52.



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