Humour as a defense mechanism

I’ve come across a guy at work who uses alot of humor in social interaction, he’s a nice enough bloke, however on one occasion, I was upset about something in regards to my family, and I was sitting with him and a group of friends, and he decided to crack jokes about my situation. He started making more jokes at my situation which got me mad, because I didn’t feel like I could vent my frustration or get any support.

But I noticed he never talks about anything serious, or avoids having a serious topic about anything, a few days before that incident, we all had a chat about pay and how he would be perfect to ask questions about management because he’s well liked and respected, and he responded by making more jokes and deflecting the discussion.

Whether he agrees with me or not I’m not bothered about, but I was fascinated, I witnessed how he constantly tried to deflect anything he didn’t like with humour. How do I deal with it? It’s one of those situations where now I recognise what he’s doing, it’s all I can see.

Why do some people do this?

It sounds like maybe he only has one tool in his social toolbox, and doesn’t know when or how to use others. Humor is a damn fine tool. It helps lighten a situation when it gets too heavy. It’s a great defense mechanism.

But so are “The soft answer that turns away wrath,” and the serious touch of empathy, and the sincere apology, and, quite often, blessed silence.

I’m kind of the same way. I’m either non-emotional–which comes across as serious and intense–or I’m making light of a situation. It’s hard for me to get the middle ground right.

I think it’s one part fear of saying something “wrong”. I don’t want to offer yet another mindless platitude. I don’t want to give advice when the person is just venting. I don’t want to say something that makes their pain worse. I don’t want to come across as inauthentic if they are feeling something I can’t relate to. Better to keep things light-hearted so as to keep the awkwardness away.

But another part is fear of intimacy. Humor comes from a place of detachment. If you stop being detached, the feelings around you start getting to you, reminding you of all the pain and sadness you’re trying to shrug off. When I am around people who are crying, I sometimes get the urge to cry too. Not because I’m necessarily feeling sad for them, but because emotions can be contagious. And I hate this.

I’m betting your friend is in a constant state of detachment. I would stop going to him when you need comfort because he’s not the type of friend who can provide that.

I’m a very open person with friends and family, but I would never discuss something “serious” at work, unless it was, you know, about work. I wouldn’t mock your problems, which is just rude.

But not discussing serious topics with colleagues doesn’t sound like a defense mechanism to me, it just sounds prudent. If somebody else isn’t respecting that position, humor is one of the best ways to deflect that.

Sometimes people resort to humor if they feel awkward or don’t know what to say. Sounds like this person had a bad case of that.

I’ll never forget attending a funeral of the husband of one of our employees. I had gone with several other people from the company. The situation was an awful one. The employee’s husband had written a suicide note stating that he had been sexually abusing their 4 year old daughter and he was killing himself because he didn’t know how to stop. He hung himself in their basement. The employee, as you can imagine, was in a state of total shock. Such a tremendous amount to deal with, all wrapped up into one ugly incident.

After the service we were standing in the parking lot and all of a sudden we started cracking jokes and laughing until we were crying. It was completely unappropriate, but the tension and the emotional buildup of the situation was so charged, we had to let the energy out somewhere. To our horror, one of the group noticed the employee had walked up behind us. She quickly asked us to please not stop laughing. She had come over to us specifically because she desperately needed to hear someone laugh. So there we all stood in the parking lot, with the widow, laughing it up!

I’ve been a bit more understanding about nervous humor in inappropriate situations since that experience.