—— Humor plays an important role in communication particularly in times of crisis, says journalist and speech writer Vazrik Bazil. In this interview, he explains why jokes liberate us from within – and describes situations in which it is best to refrain from them.


Mr. Bazil, it is often said that laughter is the best medicine. Is it really true that humor can help in times of crisis, or is it rather the case that we have nothing left to laugh about?
———— It depends a lot on how humor is used. In general, we can say that humor can have both positive and negative effects. We don’t even take notice of this consciously in our everyday lives, but it is essential for professional communication.
What are the positive aspects of humor?
———— Humor can engender two things: intimacy and distance. In a crisis, the most important thing is distance. You have to think of it as a strategy for psychological defense: Through a humorous remark or a joke, we are able to distance ourselves from what makes the crisis situation so unpleasant. This reduces our stress level and allows us to better cope with the situation, improving our mood.
Are you also seeing this effect in the current coronavirus crisis?
———— Yes. Jokes about hoarding toilet paper were common at the beginning of the crisis, for example. My aunt in Great Britain even received two lovingly wrapped toilet paper rolls from friends for her birthday. It was a humorous act that allowed friends to satirize and thus keep their distance from the strange atmosphere that prevailed when her birthday took place.

And things like that help?
———— Absolutely. Those who can bring about distance are no longer so directly at the mercy of the situation – and humor gives us a way to do that. When we make a joke or a humorous remark, we are reflecting on ourselves and thus affording ourselves the freedom we need. It is precisely this ability to claw back a bit of freedom through reflection that makes us human beings.
There were also reports of people who coughed in others’ faces and thought that was a funny thing to do. Or about jokes at the expense of certain countries.
———— Yes, it’s unfortunate that such things happened. Humor can also be twisted into something negative and aggressive. It then becomes an act of arrogance in which others are made fun of.

Humor is being used as a weapon?
———— That’s precisely what is happening. This has been seen time and again throughout history – and we can witness this constantly in our everyday lives. People make jokes at someone’s expense, belittling them in the process. This is effective but frowned upon socially. Those who act in this way shouldn’t be surprised if they themselves soon become the target of ridicule.
As a speech writer, you would probably advise against this kind of humor?
———— Absolutely.
What about humor that is more harmless?
———— That’s another thing altogether. As I said already, humor and jokes can also be quite liberating. And unlike a few hundred years ago, the audiences of today want to be entertained and made to laugh. That means that humorous sections are helpful in speeches and, depending on the occasion, something to be desired in today’s world.
Does that also apply to crisis communication?
———— In situations like the current crisis in regard to the coronavirus, you have to be extra careful as a speaker, of course. This is especially true for politicians and managers, who have to make and communicate extremely complex decisions under conditions of extreme uncertainty. I would put humor aside for the moment. If leaders are to use humor at all, they should be telling jokes at their own expense and making fun of themselves.
Can you give an example of that?
———— Jens Spahn recently had problems putting on his mask correctly at a press conference. “Mr. Spahn, your mask is upside down,” a companion called out to him, whereupon the Minister of Health put the mask on the right way around and quipped, “If I didn’t have you....” People nearby begin to crack smiles, which you could see in their eyes. That was a humorous situation.

What about jokes?
———— The same rules apply: If you tell jokes at all, they should be at your own expense and never at the expense of others. However, a joke is not the same as humor.
What do you mean?
———— Jokes are stories you can learn by heart and then rattle off over and over again without being a funny person yourself. In contrast, humor is a question of character: much more spontaneous, much more situational, much more personal. It also has a softer edge. Humor can be communicated as a joke, but it doesn’t have to be. It can also be part of an action, like the rolls of toilet paper my aunt received for her birthday.
How important would you say that the function of humor and jokes is in times of crisis, especially for societies oriented toward the individual and having fun?
———— It is necessary to make a differentiation here as well. Fun and humor are not the same thing. Fun is something that is more transient and purely a remedy for boredom, and humor is more a sign of joy than fun. All in all, I would say that the role of humor should not be underestimated in general – and this also applies in times of crisis.
We already spoke about the distancing function of humor. What about intimacy?
———— When people laugh together, they are also confirming their shared values. They are laughing at the same story or the same action. In this respect, humor facilitates our work together and creates a sense of solidarity. This can be particularly important in difficult situations, because strong group bonds are fostered.
Because inside jokes are created?
———— So to speak. This is a mechanism that we can certainly see increasingly in areas that we refer to as critical infrastructure and where people are under particular strain: hospitals, retail, transportation. People are coming up with expressions and witty sayings that have a huge impact on group identity but that are difficult for outsiders to comprehend.
And how does that help the group?
———— From this point on, intimacy and distance are combined in their impact. Jokes among insiders restore people’s frame of mind and help keep the situation from getting out of hand. Criticism can also be better expressed through humorous remarks. All in all, the distance created by humor enables close relationships within the team, which are urgently needed in a crisis.