Monthly Archives: March 2015

Humorlessness is no laughing matter

When I was an undergrad at Caltech, I worked on campus at the Red Door Café.  It was a popular hangout for grad students, post-docs, and faculty.  Those strata are highly international at Caltech; I informally counted about 50% non-native-English speakers.  It was an interesting chance to witness diversity and to observe cultural differences.  After working there for several months, I noticed a very striking pattern.  I discovered the “International Sense-of-Humor Line,” dividing a jocular western world from a stern east.  People from west of the line were much more carefree and lighthearted.  Westerners would stop to chit-chat or joke about how many calories were in our desserts.  I could give them a hard time about how predictable their orders were.  Those from the other side of the Humor Line were not into small talk.  They were there to study or do their job.  Jokes would bounce right off of them without eliciting a smile.  I also noticed that the International Sense-of-Humor Line was strongly coincident with the erstwhile Iron Curtain, right down the middle of Europe.

International Sense of Humor Line Iron Curtain

The International Sense-of-Humor line is a funny but sad reminder of how personality is shaped by culture.

Yes, I know, this is a generalization.  I don’t have any quantitative data to back up my characterization, and of course there are exceptions.  But to me in that particular environment, the overall pattern stood out pretty prominently.  I realized that maybe the dimension of humor / humorlessness can be measured as a personal or cultural value.  I had grown up in a very fun-loving environment.  I wondered why some persons — or peoples, even — would prefer to be stiff.  This little pseudo-study has made me mindful of humorlessness ever since.

In my culture, I have come to feel that a good sense of humor is a sign of mental health and social grace. I’m not talking about comic brilliance. A sense of humor is a social interest in joking around, making light of life’s imperfections, talking about trivialities, imagining and pretending, poking fun at ourselves and others. It indicates an elasticity of spirit.  It puts others at ease. Humorlessness is just the opposite — rigidity, a focus on serious topics, nervousness around others, lack of charisma. When someone is humorless, it indicates that he isn’t particularly interested in me. Then I don’t feel like talking to him for very long either.

Humorlessness is often a byproduct of emotional damage. When a person suffers enough adversity or trauma, it seems that his emotional response ossifies and becomes part of his psyche.  The person becomes coldly serious.  Hot emotions often lie just below the surface and can come out in flashes.  The hot emotions tend toward fear in conservatives (think of apocalyptic survivalists or right-wing alarmists) and anger in liberals (think of protest marches, union strikes, and revolutionaries). Wounded emotions become inflexible, and the person is unable to come back to moderation and take matters lightly anymore.

An overly serious mindset can also be a product of family values, education, peer pressure, or propaganda.  College activists are always upset about something involving race, gender, or socioeconomic status.  In their campus culture, you’re just supposed to be angry about the system.  Meanwhile,  I joke that the notoriously right-wing FOX News stands for …

"Fox News: Fear, Outrage, Xenophobia" coined by Scot Fagerland

For those of us not on the far right, programs like Fox News seem melodramatically fearful and serious.

When I do my own research, I immediately discard sources written with a tone of anger or fear.  Emotions make lousy filters for truth.  I want to learn for the pleasure of it.  Even challenges can be inspiring.  I don’t need to hear someone’s top ten reasons that the world is about to end.

I keep negative nellies and party poopers out of my life.  I’m just better off without them.  Sometimes I’ve taken on a client who gave me that first impression:  “Wow, this person is stiff!  But I need her business.”  Almost invariably, it leads to a personality clash down the line.  As a small businessman, reputation is everything.  It can hurt my business to upset a client, and if a client is easily upset, I have to walk on eggshells.  It distracts me from the more patient and respectful clients.  I have a strict policy now: I don’t need emotionally demanding clients!

What’s downright remarkable is that over-seriousness can become a widespread cultural value.  I have a friend from Iran.  One December day, we were walking around a mall with a Santa’s Village, Christmas music and lights.  “I guess you didn’t grow up with this stuff,” I realized aloud.  “No way,” he said.  “We were never allowed to have any fun!”  He was half-joking.

I believe that Eastern cultures must have a different attitude about levity.  It’s hard to imagine an entire nation where everyone is glum due to emotional baggage.  Besides, the vibe East of the International Sense-of-Humor Line is different from the grumps of the West.  Easterners are not on the edge of anger or fear.  They’re just so darn serious all the time!  I’m sure you know the type – the Russian woman who talks like a drill sergeant, the Indian guy who’s never smiled.  I suppose that in these cultures, seriousness is seen as a sign of mutual respect, whereas in the West we prefer to be easy-going and joke around with each other.  We must also acknowledge, of course, that some of the Eastern countries have had a very bleak history over the last century or more.

Many Eastern cultures are more bureaucratic than Western republics.  Here in the US, the highest value is the right to do your own thing.  I’m no expert on nations like China, Saudi Arabia, or Ukraine, but I envision them as crowded countries with little personal space.  I imagine orders coming from on high, with many government or religious officials telling people what to do.  I imagine social disobedience being a big deal.  If you don’t want to step on anyone’s toes, maybe you must guard your privacy more seriously.

I think that dictators are one of the world’s worst problems, and I feel that one of their greatest evils is imposing their humorlessness on their countrymen, from the top down.  Most dictators strike me as being humorless in the Mafioso, psychopathic sense of the word.  Easy-going, lovable guys don’t usually claw their way to the top of a power vacuum … I’m just saying.  And the weight of the bully at the top presses down on his whole national system.  It’s hard to imagine anyone cutting loose in Nazi Germany or ISIS.  I have recently seen videos of Putin at speeches and ceremonies, where he was so puffy-chested as to be almost Mussolinian.  That glimpse of his pompousness, just as much as his policies, really jarred me.  Yikes, I don’t trust a person who takes himself that seriously to be running a country.

The clip below is a pretty damn interesting case study on these effects.  When Gorbachev allowed greater free speech, his people found courage to joke about the government — though this is not exactly Comedy Club material here.  Say what you will about Reagan (and I know that Democrats have many choice words), but he collected these jokes to monitor the Soviet condition.  He also used them to reach out to the citizenry of the USSR, even as he was working to unravel their corrupt and heavy-handed government.  That took some sense of humor.

If you are the owner of any images or videos in this blog and would like me to remove them, just ask.  I make no money from this blog.  And if you don’t have a sense of humor, I apologize for this terribly offensive blog post.  Please don’t bother leaving comments tinged with anger and fear.  Oh, the irony.  >P  

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AWESOMEness

When I was thinking about pitching TEOH to publishers, I wrote a book proposal to summarize the book and its target audience.  I brainstormed some of the adjectives I would use to describe the book’s point of view.  The first three that came to mind were “Scientific, Agnostic, and Moderate.”  That gave the acronym SAM.  Pretty bland!  In an early draft of my proposal, I wrote,

The book champions a scientific, agnostic, existential, objective, moderate outlook.

Now I was up to the acronym SAEOM, which was unwieldy and didn’t make any sense.  With a little thought, I realized that I was anagramatically close to AWESOME.  I just needed a W word and another E word.  Then it clicked …

Agnostic + Worldly + Existential +  Scientific + Objective + Moderate + Educated =

awesome

In our world of hype, the AWESOME voice easily gets lost.  Religion is considered to be righteous, and the irreligious are still lumped in with communists and fringe extremists.  News programs love to interview guests at the far left and far right to get opposing strong opinions.  Political parties force politicians into dramatically polarized teams.  Conspiracy theorists, religious fundamentalists, and bitter cynics dominate every online forum.  Nationalism is still a matter of pride, and globalism is viewed with suspicion despite all its clear benefits.

Beliefs, biases, opinions, allegiances, and emotions all have their place.  Yet if your goal is to truly understand the world we live in, you must try to rise above these distractions.  You can’t take sides or get married to preconceived notions.  You have to be agnostic, worldly, existential, scientific, objective, moderate, and educated.

In a series of follow-up posts, I will delve into each of these words and further define what it means to be AWESOME!

 

As far as I can tell, the image credit belongs to Yoyo Games.  If you own rights to the image and wish to correct this attribution or remove it from this page, please let me know! 

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Write first, publish later

After writing two chapters of TEOH, I took time off to study the publishing world.  The standard advice for a non-fiction book is to (1) get an agent, (2) submit a book proposal, including two completed chapters, to editors at publishing houses.  That was my intended path for quite a long time.  Eventually, I came to feel that this isn’t the right choice for me.  I am going to write first, publish later.

What is the point of submitting a book proposal to publishers before the book is finished?  For most writers, it is to find out whether the book is worth finishing.  If the proposal does not attract publishing interest, the writer will drop the book and try another one.  I don’t need that kind of approval.  I am committed to writing TEOH whether anybody ever publishes it or not!  It’s a personal life goal for me.

For some authors, a publishing contract provides an advance on royalties — a sizeable up-front payment.  This can help pay for research and travel.  If an author has a good relationship with the publisher, his advance can even buy him six months to a year of free time to focus on the book!  That wouldn’t apply to me, though.  I’m a non-famous, first-time writer.  I’d be lucky to get a publishing deal, let alone an advance.  I would expect my advance to be a nice round number like zero dollars and zero cents.

Chasing down agents — and then publishers — would be hard work.  I have no illusion that publishing is easy.  Rather than spend my time researching agents, calling, emailing, and arranging meetings, I’d rather be building up the book and online presence.

In fact, if I did get a publishing contract, it would instantly create time pressure.  The publisher would probably expect to see a completed draft in a year.  Without an advance, I wouldn’t have the time to devote to that.  I don’t like being hurried!  I would also be handing over artistic control while the work is still in progress.  I’d rather have the luxury of finishing the book on my own time and my own terms.  Then I can pitch it to publishers, with a completed manuscript on hand — and of course explore self-publishing options too.

With that decision made, it was very exciting to finally get back to writing.  “Chapter 9:  The Last Few Billion Years” is now in progress!  Here is my working outline of sections:

  • Oxygen and Eukaryotes (done)
  • Sexual Reproduction, or “The unsexiest lesson about sex that you’ve ever seen.” (in progress)
  • How Sexual Evolution Works
  • From Amoeba to Amphibians
  • Continents and Climate

I liked writing the first and last chapters first.  I’m thinking that I’d like to continue that pattern, writing from the outside in.  That means “Chapter 2:  The Last Few Centuries” would follow Chapter 9.

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