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Enhancing Organizational Performance

A Comedy of Communications

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There was a woman who accompanied her husband to the doctor. The doctor after running a number of tests and spending hours examining her husband called her into his office for a private conversation. “You husband is quite ill and is dying”, he said. “However, if you follow these instructions very carefully over the next year there is a chance that he will live and make a complete recovery”.  The woman asked the doctor what she had to do. He began, “He no longer will be able to take the garbage out, cut the lawn or wash dishes, he needs to be greeted each morning with a hot breakfast waiting for him at the table, the kids need to be smiling and cheerful to him in the morning, when he gets home from work you should greet him at the door with his favorite beverage and slippers, he needs to eat a home cooked meal for dinner every night, after dinner he will need to relax in front of the TV, his feet up without any interruptions, fresh linens should be on the bed each evening, and he will need a back message every night. After leaving the doctor’s office the man turned to his wife and asked, “What did the doctor say to you?” She replied, “He said you were going to die”.

Communication errors are common enough in of our lives that they have become part of the vocabulary of comedy. Was her reply because she only heard the parts she wanted to hear from the doctor? Or was it due to a conscious decision regarding how open and honest communications with her husband would be; only relaying part of the message? Was she trying to hide the truth because she found it unpleasant or simply trying to control the message? Or was it just as in the game telephone, as a message gets repeated it becomes more and more garbled? The option which makes this humorous is that she was intentionally misleading or miscommunicating to her husband.

Two good friends, Ralph and Fred, were out in the woods hunting for deer. After a long day of tramping through the woods they came to a steep hill. As they climbed the steep hill Ralph grasped his chest and falls over collapsing into unconsciousness. Fred was frantic, not knowing what to do. Finally he pulls out his cell phone and calls 911. He talks to the operator. “We are in the middle of the woods, out hunting and Ralph grasped his chest and collapsed. I think he is dead. I don’t know what to do.” The emergency operator assures Fred, “Relax, I can help you, just do as I say. The first thing we have to do is make sure he is really dead.” “Ok”, says Fred and he put the phone down. After a few minutes the operator hears the noise of a gunshot over the phone. Fred gets back on the line, “Now what?”           

Part of the reason these old jokes are funny is because they involve a common occurrence that we can all relate to and have experienced, miscommunication. They simply take it to an extreme which induces us to smile, if not laugh out loud. The first joke is funny because we perceive the message as being intentionally garbled by the wife so as to relay only the portion of the information of her choosing, the portion that she perceives as best serving her own interests. It also plays off the natural tensions that exist in any kind of relationship. The second joke is funny because it involves the misinterpretation of commonly used phrases or words. We can relate, but hope that we would never make the same error as it is only funny when it happens to someone else. There are also jokes that point out how communications can shape opinion without overt communications, affecting our subconsciousness. Sometimes what is funny in them is very subtle. Here is one that while politically incorrect drives home the point. 

Two beggars were sitting on the sidewalk in Ireland. One is holding a large Cross and the other a Star of David. Both are holding out hats to collect contributions. As people walk by, they ignore the guy holding the Star of David but drop money in the other guy’s hat. Soon one hat is nearly full while the other is empty. A priest watches and then approaches the men. Trying to be helpful, he turns to the guy with the Star of David and says, “Don’t you realize that this is a Christian nation? You will never get any contributions in this country holding a Star of David.” The guy holding the Star of David turns to the guy holding the Cross and says, “Moishe, look who is trying to teach us marketing.”  

The joke is funny when you realize that the beggars, who you did not automatically relate to each other, are both Jewish as Moishe is a common name among Jews of a certain generation, and that they have set up the contrast of charity options on purpose. Second, the implication is that if only one beggar had been sitting there with a Cross, the money offered by passersby would have been less. The contrast between the two is what led to the greater financial gain. This is the same contrast that is commonly used by those trying to convince us to take one course of action over another. For instance, a restaurant will put more expensive options on the menu, so that it can sell more of the moderately priced ones and not solely the lowest priced items, intentionally trying to shape our decision making. Third, the helpful priest is funny because he missed what to the beggars was an obvious strategy to maximize their success, gentle fun is being poked. While perhaps unintentional, this joke is perfectly laying out some important concepts of human decision making and how subtle communications can be.

These jokes were not created in a lab full of graduate students studying underlying human behaviors, but by comedians who intuitively knew how aspects of the human condition work. We can learn a lot by simply paying attention to what is going on around us and how society commonly expresses itself through its communications, even when or perhaps especially so, when those communications are jokes. 

There was an examination of comedy that aired on PBS recently. It looked at the forms that comedy took during different economic periods. During economic down-cycles comedy tended towards the nonsensical, making people feel good while overlooking the severity of the situation. Abbott and Costello’s nonsensical routine of “Who’s on First?” became popular during the first great depression. It made people laugh while not reminding them of the troubles of the day. During healthy economic times, poking fun at leaders, political and otherwise, was deemed as more acceptable, and funny, partly as a way of ensuring that they did not get too full of themselves.  And during wars, comedy tends to be outwardly focused, poking fun at the outside world and peddling softly any issues at home. Comedy is, as are many other aspects of our lives simply a reflection of the times and pressures in which we live.

Written by Jeffrey M. Saltzman

October 20, 2009 at 10:06 am

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