Humor is a wonderful method to bond with some people, but it alienates so many more.
I started following a writing coach on Medium. She has helped a lot of people to become better writers, including me. (And I’ve made a living, in part through copywriting.)
While attempting to respond respectfully to one of her posts, I provided some counter-arguments, linking to an article that contained some interesting insights by a data nerd who analyzed a million stories on Medium, but also my sarcastic and satiric views on being a top 1% writer on Medium.
To paraphrase her response, “I don’t like cynicism. Why don’t you try working instead of complaining? (implied: you’re not a top writer because your writing isn’t good enough. Use your time to become a better writer, like me)”
Now, while all of those statements may be true,* she left out one thing — the only thing that makes what I write entertaining to some, but unbearable to the vast majority of people who frequent this web site — my sense of humor.
While the humor in my article was appreciated by a small group of friends, my audience usually numbers just under a hundred, while the writers I mock have audiences under a hundred thousand.
That is a sobering thought.
How I became convinced sincerity is a far more powerful, and effective force in this world.
This morning, I read another post by the same writing coach, because I’m still going to try to learn new things, even if it comes from someone who is not a fan.
And then this stopped me.
She started to complain about some absurd belief system that could have just as easily been the subject of one of my rants.
The only difference between us was that instead of writing a satire, she attacked the book she didn’t like with sincerity. Savage sincerity.
The other difference was that she got about 10 times more claps than my most recent “exposé,” even though it was one of those rare curated stories.
It’s time to face an inconvenient, rather humorless truth.
First, please allow me to riff off a famous quote by Einstein:
Relativity: “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him make one bad joke and the girl thinks she’s been stuck with him a lot longer than an hour. That’s relativity.”
I have enjoyed the friendships I’ve made with a small group of like-minded cynics, subversives, and misfits.
We have laughed long and hard and often at all of the absurdity and hypocrisy of the people who either run Medium or arbitrarily profit from the site.
But I feel the need to renounce my membership in our club.
And I need to apologize to every writer I have ever encouraged to write their truth (unless it falls within a range of truth accepted by general society).
If you want to be a popular writer on Medium, forget about self-deprecating humor, self-awareness, expressing doubt, or finding irony in the human experience.
Sincerity is the one true way.
I grew up believing that we should “Think Different,” but it’s a lie.
One of the biggest fallacies in growing up is that each generation thinks they are different. We think we are rebels who explore uncharted paths.
But we are simply clinging to another form of conformity, trying to be accepted by the other misfits at our school.
We do nothing more than play a small part in a recurring cycle of action and reaction.
How many times have you heard the phrase “The kids these days have no idea what music is”? I can assure you, this was probably said to the following artists by every one of their parents:
But here’s something different to think about: survivorship bias.
It’s the logical error of concentrating on the people that made it past some selection process, overlooking the millions who did not because of their lack of visibility.
While we are encouraged to find our path and express our individuality, there is no guarantee that your talent will ever be discovered or appreciated, because there are billions of other talented people.
Just read “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell.
Think about how much you decrease your chances of reaching your audience by using various forms of humor.
I know this has no scientific research behind it, so go with me on this list I just created of humorous approaches and what percentage your audience will respond:
No humor: 100% (at least they read a sentence before losing interest)
Accidental slip on a banana peel: 98% (only offends people against cruelty to bananas)
Various forms of physical humor: 90% (you realize even the French love Jerry Lewis)
Simpsons-level sarcasm: 50% (their secret is that they insult every part of the audience so at least one joke will make every person laugh)
Top Comedians: 40% (they attack major social problems in the world and lose the 30% of the audience who cause those problems, then another 30% who don’t like profanity, sex jokes, and bathroom humor)
Conservative Comedians: 30% (you may not find them funny, but 30% of America does)
Intellectual Comedy: 20% (it’s too much damn work if you’ve got to Google half the words in an article)
Dennis Miller: .04% (this is the mathematical expression of the Dennis Miller ratio, a legendary Simpsons gag)
Having been accused at various times of being a half-wit and not being funny at all, you can see that my efforts are causing me to lose between 80 and 99.96% of my audience by using humor.
And so I shall stop this minute, and continue this post with 100% sincerity.
I’m serious. I know it’s hard to believe it when a kidder says they aren’t kidding, but I am going to be brutally honest in a most sincere way.
There are so many ways that sincerity can help you.
- Business: in any professional endeavor, sincerity helps to build the confidence of the person you are trying to help, whether you are a writer, a doctor, a graphic designer, a salesman or a teacher. When I was a professional tennis coach, my students knew my commitment to them, so the occasional joke wasn’t a big deal. As someone who loves to write and hopes to build readership, it’s hard to build trust on a foundation of jokes.
- Dating: most people fear vulnerability, so they hide behind all kinds of games. Imagine if we the courage to just walk up to someone we liked, then smiled, introduced ourselves and asked: “if you’re not in a relationship, would you like to talk for a while?” I never could do it, but I have to believe that women would prefer this approach to the way things are currently done.
- Relationships: In all the years I’ve been a husband and a father, the most difficult hurdle to overcome in communication has been my past use of sarcasm. When I write, a lot of anger still comes out in the form of sarcasm. But in person, I’ve worked on dialing it way down over the last 20 years. I’m usually the one who is the target now in the family. That’s okay — a little karma, I suppose — but the hardest thing for me to do is when I try to say something nice, and nobody believes I mean it. It’s taken years to rebuild the trust with my younger son, so he knows I’m 100% behind him, even if I still manage to make a few unintentionally stupid comments. Sadly, I’ve still got a lot of work to do with my wife.
- Healing: The only way to heal is through a sincere desire to face the pain of deep psychological wounds, to feel sorrow and grief, and to eventually find some form of peace and acceptance. Everything else is just a means of covering it up and then self-medicating. Studies have shown that the fear of pain can be worse than the pain itself. Our inability to face one problem causes us to create so many other problems.
“Mental anguish always results from the avoidance of legitimate suffering.” ― Stefan Molyneux
A few parting thoughts on sincerity.
- We are so embedded with cultural references and spoofing in our entertainment, it almost feels like we’ve lost the ability to be innocent enough to just enjoy something for what it is. A fascinating article about Stranger Things explored the idea that kids love the show not because it speaks of a more innocent time but because it treats 80s culture as an “absurd joke.”
- The darker side of sincerity, of course, is the scam artist, and our news is filled with the ways politicians and criminals use various techniques to gain public trust and then enrich themselves at our expense. 1 in 10 seniors are the victims of some form of financial scam. It’s hard not to be cynical in modern America, and yet all of us yearn to believe in something. If we didn’t, the bad guys wouldn’t be winning as often as they are.
- Finally, some of us make the unfair connection between being sincere and being simple-minded. Some studies show a link between faith and well-being. While some of the nicest, happiest people I know are church-goers, their black and white views of political issues drive me bonkers. It’s as if the belief in God and the New Testament removes any ability to think critically. That doesn’t apply to all religious or spiritual people, who struggle with doubts about God and bring an equally nuanced perspective to life in general. Malcolm Gladwell’s podcast “Dr. Rock’s Taxonomy” explains Jesuit thinking, and shows us that religious faith and scientific genius are not mutually exclusive.
My thanks to those of you who read this essay and believe my intention to approach the subject with sincerity.
Here’s to better writing.
*Don’t think I just dismissed her feedback because I didn’t like it. I’ve spent the last few weeks taking a hard look at myself, reading her writing advice and studying the styles of other popular writers. And I think I have made some improvements.