I am a big fan using humor to disarm people. I believe laughter is, like the saying goes, a good medicine.
According to some physicians and mental health professionals:
- During a laugh, respiration, heart rate, and blood pressure temporarily rise. This causes oxygen to surge through the bloodstream that then results in lower blood pressure.
- Laughter increases blood flow, reducing the risks of a heart attack.
- Laughter reduces pain and allows toleration of discomfort.
- Laughter relaxes the whole body, relieving tension and stress for up to 45 minutes afterward.
- Laughing burns calories.
The Christian bible says, “A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a broken spirit saps a person’s strength.”–(Proverbs 17:22 (NLT).
Don’t die as you DIE.
As a diversity and inclusion trainer, humor is an important part of my work and training philosophy for all the reasons listed above. When employees hear that they must participate in diversity, inclusion, and equity (DIE) training, many want to literally die, especially if they are not part of a designated marginalized group. Many in the dominant culture, I find this especially true of white males, come into the training guarded and defensive. They are not prepared to learn but prepared to defend themselves with the battle cry:
- I’m not racist
- I’m not sexist
- I respect women
- I have a black friend
- But a Mexican stole my cousin’s job
None of which helps foster dialogue or bring about effective organizational change. Poor diversity and inclusion training is worse than no diversity and inclusion training.
Effective workplace diversity, inclusion, and equity training needs to accomplish the following:
- Provide opportunities for success. How will people know that they are “improving?” Has the company defined a target? Did you establish a baseline by using tools like the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI)*?
- Meet people where they are. Employees will be at different places in their understanding of diversity, inclusion, and equity. Some white males may be your biggest champions, and some people of color or women may be your biggest challengers. Trainers need to use multiple tools and techniques to address the learning styles and bias of a diverse workplace.
- Use humor as appropriate. Humor can disarm people and provides the opportunity to clarify what is appropriate in your workplace culture. You can’t assume that people know, and you don’t want a workplace environment that stifles creativity and humor. (maybe you do, then I wouldn’t be the trainer for you.)
Humor and the arts are windows into the culture
When I work with individuals to help them to increase their intercultural competency, I often recommend they take some time to watch the comedy or performing arts of the community about which they want to learn. Comedy, in its purest sense, outlines the pains, stereotypes, and normative behavior of a specific culture. Comedians titrate the essence of a culture into four to six punchlines a minute. In three minutes, an outsider will have 18 cultural bombs to ponder and explore. Of course, comedy is an exaggeration, but so are harmful stereotypes. Using humor is a way to disarm the negative effects of stereotypes and see them from the perspective of marginalized groups.
You ain’t Chris Rock
Am I saying that diversity and inclusion trainers should tell racist, ableist, sexist, ethnic, or homophobic jokes? Heck no! Trainers are not trying out for Saturday Night Live or Second City. But trainers can use funny stories from their own experience or help participants address their concerns in humorous ways. I don’t believe the diversity, inclusion, and equity training has to be angry or begrudgingly serious. Is the topic serious? Yes. Should the training have substance? Yes. Should organizations hold people accountable? Yes. But again, the delivery method matters and reaching the desired outcome matters.
Humor and the appropriate use of comedy is the perfect way to open dialogue and to dive deeply into controversial topics. Our society has moved toward these “color/difference-blind” approach of dealing with the isms of our society. We turn to social media echo chambers. We hashtag those we disagree with to silence. Comedy still has a way of sparking dialogue in a way that crosses boundaries in a more palatable way.
Diversity applies to trainers too
You shouldn’t be a diversity and inclusion trainer that does not realize the need for diverse approaches to education. You shouldn’t hire a trainer that can not give you options that are appropriate for your workplace goals and culture. Please understand that there should be a certain amount of discomfort in training. Changing the culture of an organization is not always pleasant. I also believe that good workplace diversity and inclusion training will leave some people offended, not because they are insulted, but because they are learning things that challenge the status quo. They have to DIE to their old ways and cultural norms.
Glen, I think you are just playing into white fragility
Look, everyone is fragile about something. We all have our breaking points. We all hate when someone moves our cheese and our privilege. People say white males are fragile, white women are telephone memes, black women are angry, black men are thugs, Mexicans are illegal, and millennials want trophies. Our cultures shape us. Blanket stereotypes aren’t helpful for any demographic, even for white folks. I should note that African-American culture, which I am a part of, has a long history of using humor:
- to disarm whites
- to openly rebel against oppression
- to release tension
- to subversively gain access to opportunities and power
Humor then is another important tool in workplace diversity and inclusion training.
We all have to work together to eradicate bias, discrimination, and systemic inequality. We must learn the master the power and influence we have to bring about the power and influence we desire. That will take allies, advocates, and skilled diversity and inclusion trainers working together. Using humor is not trading hardballs for softballs; it more like throwing curves and change-ups to help your team step up to the plate for more opportunities to win.
Is your diversity, inclusion, and equity training providing the desired results? Is your organization simply looking for a spark to get the conversation started? Send me an email, and maybe I can help, if not I’ll be happy to share a few laughs with you.
*Glen is a qualified administrator (QA) of the Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI®). The Intercultural Development Inventory® (IDI®) is the premier cross-cultural assessment of intercultural competence that is used by thousands of individuals and organizations to build intercultural competence to achieve international and domestic diversity and inclusion goals and outcomes. IDI research in organizations and educational institutions confirms two central findings when using the IDI:
- Interculturally competent behavior occurs at a level supported by the individual’s or group’s underlying orientation as assessed by the IDI.
- Training and leadership development efforts at building intercultural competence are more successful when they are based on the individual’s or group’s underlying developmental orientation as assessed by the IDI.
* Cross-cultural code-switching is the act of purposefully modifying one’s behavior in an interaction in a foreign setting in order to accommodate different cultural norms for appropriate behavior.