Humour as a Coping Strategy

The idea that humour acts as a ‘coping strategy’ is closely connected to the idea that it acts as a form of conflict management, that it allows for events to be dealt with that might otherwise cause distress. It has been suggested that humour can have a cohesive effect in times of stress (Morreall 1998: 115), and that through expelling tension it ‘facilitates social interaction in a number of situations’ (Morreall 1998: 116). These ideas are popular in the social sciences and psychology (McGhee 1979) and have been applied to a myriad of topics. For example, Mealyea (1989) describes humour as a coping strategy in occupational change, and Sanders (2004) describes how humour acts as a coping strategy for prostitutes. Gundelach (2000), in a study of national joking patterns between Scandinavian countries, describes jokes as a positive coping strategy. In management psychology, Lee and Kleiner (2005) discuss how humour can be used for stress management, arguing ‘[l] aughter works to manage stress and has no side effects’ (2005: 181) and Hoch and Dofradottir (2001) examine humour as a coping strategy for the victims of workplace bullying.

By describing humour in this way, these approaches focus on the sense of release that humour can generate, or the effect for the joker and receptive audience. While this description of humour has some commonsense explanatory power, it is only a partial explanation because it assumes coping, in every situation, to be an ethically equivalent activity. Events vary, so for example, coping with bullying or death are very different activities than an ethnic majority ‘coping’ with an ethnic minority. If the primary function of humour really was that of coping, we might expect far more jokes about events that people really do have to cope with. As death is an almost universal concern, whereas concerns over race, ethnicity and racism are far more eclectic, one might expect more jokes about death or fear of death. On the universality of death jokes, Cohen (1999) provides a critical discussion of the propriety of joking about death, suggesting that this is, at times, inappropriate (Cohen 1999: 69). Davies has questioned the notion that death jokes are a coping strategy. He suggests that jokes about the death of Princess Diana were invented by ‘those who had no strong feelings about this particular accident and saw it as no different from the mass of anonymous events that make up French traffic mortality statistics’ (2004b: 13). While it is unlikely that the jokers saw the incident as no different from any other French traffic accident, it is quite uncommon for people to construct grotesque, unsentimental humour about their dead loved ones as a coping strategy. It is common however, for death jokes to appear about groups one does not care about where perhaps one should. It is clear that jokes claiming to cope with the latest ethno-racial minority are also very common.

In relation to racist humour, jokes may act as a type of coping mechanism for the racist, in the form of a palliative because the effects of joking allow for the expression, reinforcement and denial of racism. This does not excuse racist humour, and accounts of humour as a coping strategy that see it in a positive light do not always examine the ethical impact on what they claim is being coped with. These accounts rely on a narrow focus that may consider the joker and receptive audience, and their gratification, but little else. For a more complete dissection of racist humour we must revisit some more established thought.

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