Producing Humor with Understatements

The trick to produce humor using “understatement” is to utter words or phrases that severely under-describe a situation, often saying the opposite of what a listener expects. “Understatements” work well alone, or combine them with an exaggeration for even more fun.

All fired up that he had stumbled on information explaining my symptoms, my husband Larry urged me to read a menopause article published in the Missoulian. Anxious for my response, he asked, “Don’t you think you have most of those symptoms?” I responded, “I only see one.”

Dumbfounded, he takes the newspaper from me and starts reciting, “Difficulty falling asleep, trouble losing weight, joint pain, low energy, poor concentration, irritability, menstrual changes, headaches, night sweats?” I conceded a bit more, “O.K., two.” Eyes wide opened, but not willing to provoke me, he dropped the subject.

My “understatements” caught Larry off guard, and provided me with the perfect set-up to play a joke on him. After a short pause, I goaded him, “I didn’t realize that peri-menopause can last up to 12 years. Doctors recommend that spouses or partners be patient, compassionate, and even helpful during this difficult transition.” Suspicious, but playing it safe, Larry immediately starts to scan the article for proof. The smile that flashes across my face confirms his hunch – I had been pulling his leg from the start.

How can you use understatements to your benefit or for amusement? An “understatement” is a humor technique that is a variation of an “opposite” – any behavior opposite to accepted behavior, either saying or doing something that is opposite of how someone expects you to respond.

Learning to pause before automatically responding is key to creating the opportunity for humor. Pausing allows you the time to reflect on how you would “normally or automatically” respond. Quickly identify the feelings that accompany this response. Next explore the emotions that would be completely opposite of your “true” feelings. Now identify the behaviors or comments that could reflect these opposite emotions.

Another important factor when using understatements is to make sure that your words, tone of voice, facial expressions, and actions are congruent. Otherwise you will give the “punch-line” away. Often we smile or chuckle to signal to our victim that we “fooled” them. So, remember to pause and really enjoy the moment, before you give those “got cha” signals.

For example, Larry expected me to instantly acknowledge most of the symptoms listed in the menopause article, as though he was my hero for discovering this new(?) information. The thoughts that circulated inside my head were, “HELLO? Where have you been the past six or seven years?”

Instead of responding with agitation, I paused – so I could give myself time to formulate the answer he deserved, one that was opposite of what he expected, and one that would allow me to release the frustration I felt in a positive way. I delivered my response by acting as though I could barely see any resemblance of the symptoms he believed I displayed.

I turned the tables on Larry again when I told him I had learned something new, and then paused. He expected me to admit to experiencing some of the symptoms. When I told him that menopause could last up to twelve years, it was not what he expected to hear, again.

Once you master the understatement, you can even come back with an exaggeration, another variation of “opposites.” I used “mild” exaggeration to tell Larry that doctors suggested spouses or partners need to be more understanding and even helpful during this difficult transition. What made this twist work in my favor was that what I said was “believable,” and my body language supported my seriousness.

Only after Larry grabbed the newspaper from me to verify the information, did I dare to crack a smile…one that quickly spread across my face and gave me away.

“Opposites, understatements, and exaggeration” are humor techniquesthat are easy to learn. Use them for fun and enjoyment. They are especially effective, when you are dealing with frustrating situations or difficult people. As Judy Carter says, “Don’t get mad, get funny!”

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