Even when we laugh at the expense of others and their misfortunes we create togetherness and solidarity. Putdown humour is any humour that derives amusement at the expense of others. It can be demeaning jokes, teasing, sarcasm or even self-deprecating remarks. While putdowns can be effective to build bonds and friendship there exists certain rules of engagement. For example, a putdown must be within a friendly framework and we must follow certain agreed upon rules. Taking putdown humour too far can be hurtful, and particularly harsh putdowns can be used to elevate ourselves at the target’s expense, or equally, we too we can become victim of putdowns. For example, in a study by Susan Martin in 1978 out of American University it was shown that police officers who use putdown humour against female officers tended to use it because they felt uncomfortable with the notion of having females in a male dominated workplace. However, humour among, say men at a weekly poker night can foster belonging. Overall, men will use putdown humour more often than women and also tend to expect it. Practical jokes work similarly, and sporting teams frequently use pranks to welcome new members.
The real key is to avoid hitting on truisms about a person that can be hurtful. Making fun of someone for being ugly when in fact it is well known that they are confident beauty pageant winner or making fun of a sprinter for being slow, is in good fun, and will be well received. However, poking fun at someone who is rigid or uptight, by including this trait in a joke, it is sure to offend them and while it might have a leveling effect between two people, it serves no unifying characteristics. In fact, the only result likely is to outline key differences between people and help others see this disagreement making everyone involved look bad. Harsh putdowns only serve to disassociate a person from others.
Dr. Terrion of the University of Ottawa who followed a group of police officers through training found that the development of putdowns followed a rough pattern of progression from putting down oneself, to putdowns of shared identities or groups, to putdowns of external groups and finally to putdowns of each other within a group. She also found that officers tended to putdown members of the group that had higher status, and members tended to poke the most fun at others whom they liked most and that using putdowns when members were absent was seen as backstabbing so was frowned upon. One of the cardinal rules of putdown humour, is to only poke fun at people who are present. The study also showed that members that are willing to laugh at themselves tended to be taken into the group more readily. Laughing at oneself shows others that we see ourselves as equals and shows that we can be trusted. Another general putdown rule follows that members that don’t take well to putdowns shouldn’t be targets because it tends to elicit an uncomfortable feeling within the rest of the group.
Putdown humour, when it is framed properly, indicates belongingness and also a desire by others to welcome someone in given that all the rules are properly followed. Conversely, a lack of inclusion into humour, even putdowns, can alienate us just as much as particularly negative humour. The next time someone pokes fun, roll with it and either laugh heartily or joke back, as humour can help break down boundaries and create inclusiveness.