Yoram Solomon, PhD
Funny, Not Funny, and TRUST
And then, Chris Rock pointed to Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith's wife, and said, “Jada, I love you, GI Jane 2, can’t wait to see it.” The audience laughed. The camera turned to Will Smith and his wife. He was laughing, but she was rolling her eyes. It took 12 more seconds before Will Smith appeared on the stage and slapped Chris Rock, in a moment that will forever remain in Oscar infamy.
This article is not about whether Rock had crossed the line with his comment, insensitive to Jada’s medical condition that led to her bold head. It’s not about whether Will Smith should have addressed this differently.
It’s about the 12 seconds between the moment Smith was laughing, and the moment he was slapping Chris Rock. It’s about when funny becomes not funny anymore and how trust plays into it.
In a poll of 42 participants, I asked when is it OK for someone you work with to ask you a personal question such as “how old are you?” 24% said “always,” 17% said “never,” but the overwhelming majority of 57% said, “it depends on who is asking.”
Those who consider personal questions like that or humor that comes at the recipient's expense never appropriate may do that because they believe those are invasive, create a discrimination opportunity, or force vulnerability on the recipients. Those who deem it always appropriate may feel they have nothing to hide or be ashamed of or are less sensitive to such comments, questions, or jokes.
But the majority said, “it depends on who is asking,” which makes it interesting.
Think about it, there are comments, questions, or jokes that you are willing to take from one person but not from another, and there are comments, questions, or jokes that you feel comfortable posing to one person but not to another. Why?
It depends on why
One of the main reasons determining whether we will accept a comment, personal question, or joke made at our expense is because we know why the other person is making it, and we trust that their motives are pure. In one survey, I found that we are 76% more receptive to comments from another person if we trust their motivation to make those comments. A second component of the relative trust model plays a role is personality compatibility (“we have the same sense of humor”). Not all people share the same sense of humor. Finally, the symmetry component plays a role as well. When someone makes a racial, gender, or age (or any other demographically-based) comment, but they are part of the same demography as we are, we are more likely to accept that joke as a combination of a joke at my expense, as well as a joke at their expense.
I’m sure that if Chris Rock had made his joke in the privacy of the Smiths’ home, the joke would have been accepted much more than when it was made in front of the Oscars’ ballroom. When we trust someone, we are willing to be 240% more vulnerable (such as being the target of a joke) than when we don’t trust them. When other people are present, our willingness to be vulnerable dramatically drops because it is determined by the least trust we have in anyone in that room.
Funny and trust
Professor Jennifer Aaker of the Stanford graduate business schools claimed that “shared laughter accelerates trust. Even reminiscing about moments of shared laughter makes individuals report being 23% more satisfied in their relationships.” A 2019 Forbes article further stated, “laughter and trust are intertwined at both a primitive and genetic level.” And that “laughter, for those reasons, is a physical signal of trust. You don’t laugh with people who threaten your safety—just the opposite. You laugh with the people you trust. Laughter can also be used to quickly create trust. The deeper the laugh, the greater the potential for trust will be.” So, on the one hand, humor can build trust, but on the other hand, it can also create an adverse reaction that will kill trust. Which one is it?
The thin line of trust
There is a thin line of the maximum level of humor (or sarcasm or directness) that any pre-existing level of trust can support. The higher the trust, the more the recipient is willing to take.
When you stay below that line, you are safe and will not hurt trust. But when your joke crosses that line into the danger zone above it, you will break trust. The further you are with your comment or joke below the line, the safer it is to assume you will not hurt the other person’s feelings, albeit your joke will likely not be very funny. The closer you get to the line, the funnier the joke is, and the more you will build trust because, as described above, we trust funny people.
Bad is much stronger than good. For the same reason we are more likely to post a negative review if we had a negative experience than to post a positive review if we had a positive experience, trust will be hurt much more when we cross the line than it will grow when we are safely below the line. You should also consider that there is a line that, if crossed, the other person's reaction is no longer rational and might become irrational and emotional without their ability to control it.
Timing is everything
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I used to make a joke that we had the first case of Corona in our house. Of course, I meant Corona beer and not the Coronavirus. But as the loss of life from the pandemic grew, that joke became inappropriate, and I couldn’t tell it even to the people I had said it to before.
In 1957, Steve Allen said, "Tragedy plus time equals comedy.” Even tragedies could be funny if enough time has passed. Time plays a role. The same thing can be funny at one time, not amusing at another, and possibly funny again later.
So what do we do?
First, what happened in the 2022 Academy Awards ceremony is becoming clearer. Chris Rock, possibly a friend of the Smiths, misjudged the place and perhaps the time of a joke that would have made them laugh at another time and another place. He misjudged where the thin line of humor vs. trust was. He didn’t misjudge it by much, evidenced by Will Smith initially laughing at the joke. It took 12 seconds to realize that Rock had crossed the line.
In summary, humor builds trust, but there is a line of the level of humor that is supported by the preexisting level of trust. That line depends on time, place, context, personality compatibility, symmetry, and other relative trust factors. If you stay below the line, you will be funny. But if you cross it, even by little, you will not only be not funny, but you will also hurt the trust the joke recipient has in you.
Here is a piece of advice for you. Do your best to analyze the person, your relationship with them, the time, place, and context to estimate where the line is. Then, assume it is a little lower than that. Better be less funny than to get slapped in the face. Better safe than sorry.
Oh, and one last thing. If someone ever said something to you unintentionally and hurt your feelings, it is 100% your decision to take it personally and become emotional and irrational, with absolutely nothing to gain.
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Dr. Yoram Solomon is an expert in trust, employee engagement, teamwork, organizational culture, and leadership. He is the author of The Book of Trust, host of The Trust Show podcast, a two-time TEDx speaker, and facilitator of the Trust Habits workshop and masterclass that help build trust in organizations. He is a frequent speaker at SHRM events and a contributor to HR.com magazine.