Home | Articles | Tongue Fu! Training Institute
  Beat 'Em To the Punch . . . Line  
Beat 'Em To the Punch . . . Line
Article by Sam Horn

"Perhaps one has to become very old before one learns how to be amused rather than offended."  -  Pearl S. Buck

Why wait until we're old to learn how to be amused rather than offended? Why not learn now?  

Humor is a time-tested way to playfully block difficult people from having their way with us.  Bullies push, push, push to see what we're made of.  If we're able to successfully parry their verbal jabs, they'll usually leave us alone because they know we're up to the test.

An attorney friend is a perfect practitioner of this concept.  She said, "I got sick and tired of hearing all the lawyer jokes.  I know some people have had unsatisfying experiences at the hands of the legal system; however, it gets tiresome hearing for the umpteenth time, "How do you know when a lawyer is lying?  When her lips are moving."  An associate finally told me that being made fun of comes with the attorney territory, and I better develop a thick-skin or my sensitivity about this was going to drive me nuts."

"She was right.  Now, I collect lawyer jokes and post the best ones on a bulletin board in my office. If I'm at a cocktail party, and someone starts in with, "Hey, have you heard the one about . . . " instead of inwardly groaning, I add my two cents (two hundred dollars?) worth.  One of my favorites is:  "Why don't sharks attack lawyers?  Professional courtesy."

Lighten Up Instead of Tighten Up

"No one becomes a laughingstock who laughs at himself." - Seneca

Another example of someone who wisely decided to lighten up instead of tighten up is Joseph Heller.  He said, "When I read something saying I've not written anything as good as Catch-22, I'm tempted to reply, 'Who has?"  Good for Heller.  Heller's Catch-22 was a masterpiece that generated a phrase that became a password of our time and a symbol for bureaucratic ineffectiveness.  Only a handful of authors have achieved that type of enduring impact on popular culture.  Whether he liked it or not, his follow-up books would all be compared (probably unfavorably) to this once-in-a-lifetime novel.  It was smart of him to anticipate this public reaction and handle it with aplomb rather than affront.

If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join In

"Blessed are they who can laugh at themselves, for they shall never cease to be amused."  -Anonymous

A man named Art who was "follicly challenged" said he agreed with my friend's decision to not take herself so seriously.  He explained, "I started losing my hair when I was only thirty-five years old.  I went the 'rug' route and should have taken out stock in Rogaine.  After about five years of sinking thousands of dollars into hair plugs and everything else on the market, I realized I was fighting a losing battle (so to speak) and decided I might as well learn to live with and laugh at my baldness. If someone tries to make a joke at my expense, I come right back at 'em with a joke of my own like, "I'm not losing my hair, I'm gaining face."  Sometimes I say, "I'm not bald, I'm a man of scalp."  or "I'm not bald, I'm a hair donor."  Once people realize I'm not self-conscious about it, it takes the fun out of it for them and they usually drop it."

Art had a good point.  When teasers discover their goads don't get our goat, they go elsewhere.  Their goal is to make us feel embarrassed.  If we're not bothered by their verbal arrows, they'll stop slinging them because they're pointless.

Quip Pro Quo
"Humor is just another defense against the universe."  -  Mel Brooks, American film director

A lot of articles and books tell you to "use humor" to defuse verbal grenades, they just don't tell you how.  What exactly are we supposed to say when bullies zero in on our emotional sore spots?  How can we keep the cat from getting our tongue?  I wanted to put my "funny" where my mouth is, so I've provided a variety of Quip Pro Quo's (wise cracks) you can use to defend yourself the next time someone tries to step on your mental toes.

Divorce:  "Why did you get a divorce?" "Let's just put it this way.  We had five years of happy marriage; but we were married for fifteen."  -  Bob Thomas

Single:  "Why isn't a cute young thing like you married?  "I think, therefore I'm single."  -  Liz Winstead

Age:  "How old are you anyway?"
"Let's just say my back goes out more than I do."  -  Phyllis Diller

Fitness:  "Why don't you work out?"
"I'm pushing 60; that's enough exercise for me."  -  Mark Twain

Education: "What's your degree in?" "I have a ND - No Degree!" "Well, I pursued my degree at Berkeley, but I never caught it."

Weight:  "Wow, you've really packed on the pounds."
"I resemble that remark."  -  Groucho Marx

Unsolicited Advice:  "You know what you should have done?"
"When I want your opinion, I'll give it to you."  - Madonna

Pregnant:  "Are you having a baby?"  (and you're not pregnant)
"Yea, I'm having twins.  I'm naming them Ben & Jerry."  - Rosie O'Donnell

Bad memory:  "Are you getting senile or something?" "No, I'm suffering from déjà vu amnesia.  I think I've forgotten this before."  -  Roseanne Barr

Put Your Funny Where Your Mouth Is
"I don't think being funny is anyone's first choice."  -  Woody Allen

Being funny with someone who's crossed the courtesy line may not be our first choice, however it's worth a try if everything else we've tried has failed.  "The sound of laughter has always seemed to me," observed Peter Ustinov," the most civilized music in the universe."  Sometimes humor is a civilized yet effective way to get through to someone who's not listening.

This was demonstrated by a veterinarian's assistant who told me about her boss's clever handling of a client who would not take "no" for an answer. This client was a well-known cheap-skate who was always questioning her bill.  She had called the vet's office because her dog "Fifi" had hurt her paw and the owner was trying to figure out whether it was serious enough to bring her in.  Actually, she was trying to get free advice so she could treat the injury herself instead of having to pay a visit to the clinic.

After ten frustrating minutes of back-and-forth Q & A, the vet finally said, "Mabel, put down the phone, go get Fifi, and bring her to the phone."  "What?!"  squawked Mabel.  "Just do it," the doctor ordered.  So, Mabel put down the phone, found Fifi, and brought her back to the phone.

The vet said, "Now, hold Fifi up so I can look at her paw and see how bad it is."  Mabel protested, "You can't see Fifi's paw over the phone!"  The doctor pounced.  "That's right, I can't see Fifi's paw over the phone.  Now bring her in so I can make a proper diagnosis and we can get this treated."  Bravo!

Pun Fu!
"It was so quiet you could hear a pun drop."  Anonymous

A friend from Maui shared another marvelous example of someone who had perfected what I call Pun Fu! (a Tongue Fu! technique of handling hassles with humor instead of harsh words.)  This woman said, "I was on a packed flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles.  Every single seat was full so we were all crammed together, elbow to elbow.  There was a little boy, probably about five years old, wearing a cowboy hat and cowboy boots running up and down the aisles pretending to shoot passengers with his straw.  We all kept looking at the mother, waiting for her to do something about her son.  The mother had a baby on her lap and was so busy taking care of her infant, she had obviously given up on the cowboy."

"Finally, the senior flight attendant walked over, hunkered down on the little sharpshooter's level, put her hands on his shoulders, looked him in the eye, and said, 'Would you like to play outside?'" 

"Deer in headlights.  The little boy's eyes got this big.  He scurried back to his seat, and there he sat for the rest of the flight."

Have You Got Jest Lag?
"Your humor never fails to abuse me."  -  The Lion King

Are you thinking, "But I'm not funny" or "My sense of humor never shows up until it's too late?" Understand the key to thinking on your feet is to brainstorm sensitive scenarios beforehand so you don't go brain dead when they happen. What are you touchy about?   Is there a particular question or comment you dread?

If someone is going for the jugular vein instead of the jocular vein, check out the www.humorproject.com  website run by Dr. Joel Goodman and Margie Ingram, Directors of the Humor Project in Saratoga Springs, NY.  This couple believes humor is supposed to be amusing instead of abusing and they have conferences, seminars, and a warehouse of newsletters, books, and videos that all prove Robin William's philosophy that humor is "acting out optimism."  Their annual International Conference on Humor and Creativity brings people from all over the world to learn how to laugh with each other instead of at each other.

Live Happily Ever Laughter
"He laughs best whose laugh lasts."  - Laurence J. Peter

Understand you don't have to re-invent the laughter wheel all by yourself.  Ask people in similar situations what they say when their sore subject is brought up.  Check out the humor books at your local library, bookstore, or comedy website. By researching and acquiring (be sure to attribute and give credit where credit is due) a repertoire of wise cracks in advance, you need never again worry about being tongue-tied when someone's trying to have fun at your expense.

Action Plan and Discussion Questions

 What is something you're sensitive about?

What do you say if someone brings this up?  Are you tongue-tied or do you let loose the retort on the tip of your tongue?

Can you think of any funny Quip Pro Quo's you've heard?  Do you know someone who has a clever wise-crack in response to an often-asked question? Who is that and what do they say?

What punch-lines are you going to develop so you can handle "zaps" with poise instead of panic?

Have you witnessed a situation where someone used humor instead of harsh words (Pun Fu)?  What happened?

Summary of Beat 'Em to the Punch . . . Line

Harmful Beliefs/Behaviors   Helpful Beliefs/Behaviors
Sensitive about sore spots "I'm embarrassed that my memory isn't what it used to be."   Sense of humor about sore spots "Okay, I can be frustrated by it or I can have fun with it."
Tighten up "Oh, I forgot her name again.  This is humiliating."   Lighten up "I must be suffering from mental - pause.  What is your name?"
Can't Beat 'Em "How many times am I going to have to remind you of my name?!"   Join In "Until I get it right??"
Bullies use us as their verbal  punching bag "You must be getting senile or something."   We beat bullies to the punch  . . .line with quip pro quo's "Yea, I forget three things.  Names, birthdays, and I can't remember the third." - Henny Youngman
Suffer from "I Should Have Said Syndrome" "I don't know how I can face her again."      Brainstorm sensitive situations and prepare Fun Fu! responses "I have a photographic memory. 
I just haven't developed it yet." - Henny Youngman