Humor in Framing

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If a leader incorporates the four types of humor (aggressive, affirmative, self-defeating, and self-enhancing) into their framing correctly, they can engage their audience while making themselves seem more trustworthy. Displays of appropriate humor raise perceptions of confidence and competence, which in turn increase status. While displays of inappropriate humor can also signal confidence, they can reduce perceptions of competence.

Keywords: humor, framing, relationships

When framing your communication style, there are four different types of humor that can be displayed. There is aggressive (poking fun at someone else’s expense), affiliative (humor that helps build comradeie and relationships), self-enhancing (humor about oneself in a positive fashion) and self-defeating (poking fun at oneself in a demeaning way in order to build relationships). Many of the best communicators, and therefore, leaders, incorporate humor into their speeches/presentations – and not just once, but repetitively.

My pastor tries to keep his sermons interesting so that we don’t fall asleep during them, but they usually aren’t always funny. He just tries to incorporate stories or get us to participate by doing “surveys”. However, this past Sunday, he was on a roll! He included all four types of humor – however it wasn’t intentional. Aggressive humor is poking fun at someone else’s expense.

This involves put-downs or insults targeted toward individuals (Riggio, 2015). He did this by poking fun at other churches and the hierarchies within those churches as he felt that they put themselves too high above the people. He also did this by poking fun at a few members in the congregation. This second one wasn’t supposed to be seen as mean as he confessed he did the same thing that he was pointing out in others. He didn’t “intended to threaten or psychologically harm others” (Riggio, 2015). Hence, this could be seen as affiliative humor.

The intended purpose of this humor in that moment was to nail home the point the hypocrisy hat people participate in. What I appreciate is that he knows he participates in the hypocrisy as well, so he expresses it as well. Affiliative humor is humor that helps build comradeie and relationships. This involves telling jokes about things that everyone might find funny (Riggio, 2015). My pastor did this by bringing “statements that might be true to you if you live/lived in a small town”. This had everyone in hysterics because all of us consider ourselves to be part of a small town, hence we could relate and found it funny.

The intended purpose of this humor in that moment was to build a tighter relationship with the congregation while also incorporating it into the Bible verse he was using. Self-defeating humor is poking fun at oneself in a demeaning way in order to build relationships. While my pastor did incorporate this into his sermon, he added a spin to it so that it wouldn’t be “an unhealthy form of humor” (Riggio, 2015). A spin” places a subject in a positive or negative light” (Fairhurst, 2011). By putting a positive spin upon his self-defeating humor, he created an inspiring story.

This spin turned a self-defeating humor into a self-enhancing humor. The intended purpose of this humor in that moment was truly to get a negative experience off of his chest and to help himself heal. Through this, he hoped to help others not to make the same mistake and help others. Self-enhancing humor is joking about oneself in positive fashion. This is being able to make a joke when something bad has happened to you (Riggio, 2015). My pastor did this when he almost fell into the baptismal. He brushed it off and made a joke out of it. This was the highlight of the sermon and had all of us in hysterics.

The intended purpose of this humor in that moment was to just keep people from worrying about him and keep the sermon moving – even with the hiccup. Because my pastor included humor into his sermon, he was able to keep the audience engaged the entire time, which in turn got his message to the congregation. By including humor, he also created a bond with the audience by putting them at ease and making him seem more likeable.

With a topic such as sins and how we can never repay Jesus, but we can do our best, it can become emotionally challenging for an audience. Having well-placed humor can provide emotional relief for the audience. The pastor has left the congregation with a good impression of not only him, but of his sermon. As can be seen through just the one sermon by my pastor, leaders can and should use humor in their presentations.

It not only helps with audience engagement, but also makes you more approachable and trustworthy. However, if a leader is only going to use self-defeating or aggressive humor without a spin, then they need to either not use it or figure out a different tactic. A leader I have seen that uses (and excels in its use) humor is Drew Dudley. Drew Dudley is the founder of Day One Leadership and has spent the last 15 years helping individuals and organizations increase their leadership capacity. Prior to that he was the director of Canada’s largest leadership development programs at the University of Toronto.

I was able to bring him to our school’s All School Workshop this past January. He talked about how many of us don’t realize we are leaders because we don’t have the title or the higher education, but he made this difficult topic (especially around both faculty and staff) approachable by threading humor throughout. A leader that I have seen that tries to use humor, but fails miserably at, is a member on my faculty/staff development/recognition committee.

She is a faculty member on many committees and a head of a program. She tries to incorporate humor whenever she talks and presents, but it just comes off as haughty and narcissistic. She has rubbed many people the wrong way and is starting to alienate herself. I’m sure it isn’t just her misuse of humor, but it sure doesn’t help the situation either. Humor fits within all framing concepts. According to Fairhurst (2011), “As the name suggest, simplifying frames reduce the chaos or complexity of the moment”.

Knowing your audience is the biggest part of when to inject humor. If the crowd is participating to and acting like they are engaged, then inserting humor is good. If they aren’t participating or reacting, then there shouldn’t be humor inserted. When giving a speech and if I frame it one way, but feel I feel like something is a threat, humor can allow me to respond in a way that is more deliberate (Goffman, 1967). Or if my current frame isn’t getting the response I want, I can use humor as a way to shift my frame into something more effective (Fairhurst, 2011). By incorporating humor into one’s framing style, they create a more interesting and believable communication style.

They don’t have to include all four types of humor (aggressive, affiliative, self-enhancing, and self-defeating) to make a great communication – they can just have one type. Many of the best communicators, and therefore, leaders, incorporate humor into their speeches/presentations. Leaders with humor can build stronger cultures, unleash more creativity, and even negotiate better deals. Displays of appropriate humor raise perceptions of confidence and competence, which in turn makes one seem like they have a higher status.


  1. Fairhurst, G. T. (2011). The Reality of Framing. The Power of Framing: Creating the language of leadership. San Francisco, CA Jossey-Bass.
  2. Goffman, E. (1967). Interaction ritual: Essays on face-to-face behavior. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company.
  3. Riggio, R. E. (2015, April 15). The 4 Styles of Humor. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/201504/the-4-styles-humor#https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cutting-edge-leadership/201504/the-4-styles-humor

Cite this paper

Humor in Framing. (2021, Jun 22). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/humor-in-framing/

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