Let’s laugh our way toward not being jerks

I’m in a coffee shop right now. There are probably 30 people in here, all of us getting amped up on caffeine and typing furiously on our device of choice. I can safely make a few assumptions–we’re probably all fairly well off, since we can afford laptops and lattes. Most of these folks are probably students or academics, since we’re about 20 yards from the edge of a college campus. Everyone seems to be speaking English with an American accent, so we’re all probably Americans. In other words, most of the people here, and in most of the places where I spend my time, are a lot like me. Is that true for you, too? You go to church–people there probably share your beliefs, more or less. Your kid’s school? Probably a lot of the kids there look like your kid.

Circling in the tight little orbits most of us move in, its easy to forget that we live in a huge world, full of incredible diversity. It’s easy to feel like the struggles and stories of “other people” don’t affect us that much, or to develop knee-jerk reactions to “those people.”

The guy at the table next to me just told a hilarious story about a disastrously-executed birthday surprise. (Yes, I eavesdrop. It’s a professional necessity). My table neighbor had decided to surprise his significant other with a puppy. They’d talked about getting a dog for more than a year. Their flexible work schedules would make it fairly easy to care for a dog. They’d even looked together on PetFinder. What could go wrong?

He’d put the puppy in their bedroom for a few minutes, planning to release it when the time was right. When he finally opened the door at the TA-DA! moment, the puppy had already chewed up one of his significant other’s favorite shoes and eaten part of the TV remote control. They couldn’t find the batteries, and, worried the puppy had swallowed them, they had to cancel their fancy dinner reservation and rush the dog to the emergency vet. They spent the birthday night, and $600, in the doggy ER.

That’s the kind of story that anyone who’s ever had a puppy, or a significant other, or a bad birthday can relate to. Does it make the story less funny or relatable if I tell you that the storyteller’s significant other was a man? Would it matter if the storyteller was Muslim? Or Mongolian? Or a gay, Mongolian, Muslim? I hope not. Funny is a pretty universal language.

That’s why I was so heartened to read that science backs me up on this. Exposure to groups unlike ourselves through light, humorous situations can make a lasting, positive impression, especially if you’ve had limited exposure to a particular group in the past.

I hope my books can make little changes like that. Don’t know many small-town Southerners? Never met a mixed-race, gay Christian couple with a three-legged cat? Well, I hope my book allow readers to laugh at and with these people, so that maybe next time we pass beyond our tight orbits, all of our planets will align.

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