Veterans’ Humor

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Veterans transitioning from the military, change not only their employment, but their identity. Embedded in their identity is a veterans’ sense of humor. The type of humor that veterans adopt from the military can lead to hardship when transitioning to the civilian world. In this paper we will explore humor in organizations, cynicism and humor in the military, the expectations within the transitioning process, and lastly the impact of this type of humor on the veteran themselves. Before exploring how veterans’ humor can affect their transition, we must understand the different types of humor present in all organizations.

Humor is a basic component of great apes, and their interaction and perception of the world. This can be gleaned from Morreall’s discussion in chapter three, From Lucy to “I Love Lucy”: The Evolution of Humor (Morreall, 2009). Humor in organization is vital as it supports inclusivity, boosts communication, and promotes satisfaction and thus productivity (Romero et al, 2017).

Affiliative humor is defined as a type of humor that attracts and retains people. It is used in social interaction as it is non-aggressive and enhances in interpersonal skills. From general observation it can be ascertained that this type of humor is present in both the military and civilian worlds. It is also used a positive type of humor in both worlds.

Self-enhancing humor is a type of humor in which the individual or group employing it, “…have a humorous view of life and are not overly distressed by its inevitable tribulations (Romero et al, 2006).” What this means, in this student’s understanding, is the group or individual utilizing this humor has no worries whatever comes what may. This type of humor is important because it is heavily used by the military to handle difficult situations. The military also uses cynicism, but self-enhancing humor is used in conjunction.

Aggressive humor is a type of humor under the Superiority Theory. This type of humor posits that those beneath must be mocked and ridiculed. As Romero et al points out, aggressive humor makes the individual or group who is employing this type of humor to feel better about themselves. This type of humor is certainly employed by the military. It is used to mock and ridicule any and every rank, and any and every enemy and/or threat. Aggressive humor can make the utilizers feel better about themselves in the face of the situation, but it is a negative influencer to the individual, group, or idea facing the brunt of this type of humor.

Mild aggressive humor is also non-committing humor. Romero et al indicate, “When manifested as satire or teasing, mild aggressive humor can communicate a forceful reprimanding message but with a positive tone (2006).” The military uses this type of humor on the regular, but as later explored, when veterans use this humor in the civilian world it can be received negatively. The military, per the student’s personal experience, takes things literally. When faced with life or death situations it is important to know that one is joking or not. The civilian world take satire and teasing to a more aggressive level and the veteran can wind up feeling that a mild aggressive form of humor just turned aggressive.

Self-defeating humor is also self-deprecating humor. When people joke about themselves it can humanize them, making them more open to bonds with others. When someone says, “I’m so fat I have my own solar system!” another person can joking agree and then a line of communication is opened. In the military self-defeating humor is seen as humility of self which falls under the Army’s values.

This student would argue humility falls under Respect and Selfless Service because humility is respect for oneself and others as well as recognizing that an individual is not as important as the team. Humility is key to following those two values. The civilian world, on the other hand, does not embody the values of the military. Self-defeating humor is, in this student’s observation, seen as weak. The civilian world is more cut-throat and every man for himself (Rose et al, 2017).

In the military these types of humors play a strong role in building bonds and preparing soldiers for combat and/or life-threatening situations. Each type of humor is, as this paper argues, more important than in the civilian world. The civilian world exhibits the same type of humor, but because the aspect of life-threatening does not exist the humor is less important and can more readily turn on a veteran than not. This point will be proven under later in the paper.

These different types of humor are in both the civilian world and the military world, although employed and interpreted differently. The reason there are different interpretations is because each world, for lack of a better phrase, is built on different values and different needs. When humor fails to build positive relationships and strengthen cohesion then those that do not fit in are left out. Aggressive humor comes into play and can cause immense stress to the outlier. This difference segues into the next topic: cynicism.

Cynicism, as defined by Smith et al, as “… a generally negative worldview that considers others untrustworthy, deceitful, and selfish… (2018).” The military implements cynicism as a self-protective barrier between reality and personal expectation. Cynicism is a pessimistic approach to less than ideal circumstances. From not being able to go on leave on time, to losing a comrade, all the way to seeing war in all its horrific reality, cynicism protects soldiers from the damaging weight of all that they must bear. Smith et al accurately point out that, “…cynicism develops as a functional worldview that serves needs in the combat environment as an effective expectancy response system… (2018).” When combined with humor, cynicism is a powerful tool to protect the soldier.

For example, a soldier in Iraq sees the remains of a baby. The solider can react in two main ways by either accepting reality or not accepting reality. So, assume the soldier accepts reality, he cannot accept the reality as emotionally important information or as emotionally unimportant information. In order to carry on the mission, which is a concept heavily instilled from day one, the soldier needs to realize the remains of the baby is not important. On an emotional level, however, this is still important. Therefore, the soldier needs process the information as emotionally unimportant in the greater scheme of the mission. Hence, cynicism.

Another example is the acronym BOHICA, which stands for Bend Over Here It Comes Again. This acronym means that the individual and or group is about to be sidelined by the system and probably punished on top of everything else. A prevalent view in the military is that systems do not exist to help, but to hinder. This is very true regarding the Veterans Administration, but cautiously applied to the civilian world.

The military likes to make jokes of pretty much everything. From calling themselves Buffer Warriors to calling someone High Speed the military likes to laugh. Humor helps relieve stress (Romero et al, 2018), but between the long waits and the brief flashes of high intensity cynicism and humor brings soldiers together, strengthens bonds, and allows them to cope with their reality.

The problem with cynicism and the military’s brand of humor is that the civilian world finds it different. And usually this means negative consequences for the veteran. As explained above, the military and civilian world have different values and different needs. The military lives, breaths, and dies by the core beliefs drilled in from day one. The civilian world does not have one set of core beliefs but tend to be on the lookout for themselves. Once the reality of this difference sets in the transitioning veteran uses cynicism to cope with difference in unmet expectation. Yet in order to go further there must be an explanation of what this type of humor is.

Gallows humor is a type of humor literally from the gallows. It is a type of humor that comes from, as the name implies, deadly and life-threatening situations. Antonin Obrdlik wrote a paper back in 1942 detailing this type of humor among the Czechoslovakians when they were occupied by the Germans. Obrdlik found that gallows humor help reframe events in a positive way, lending camaraderie among the oppressed Czechoslovakians and negatively undermining morale for the invading Germans. An example he shares was too good to leave out and is as follows:

A Czech guest leaving the restaurant one evening says to his friend: ‘Good night. Now I am going to listen to the London and Paris wireless.’ He is overheard by a Gestapo agent and followed to his home. However, no wireless receiver can be found. ‘Do you never listen to foreign broadcasts?’ asks the Gestapo man suspiciously. And the reply: ‘Oh, yes, I just can’t help it.’ Then the Czech kneels down and says: ‘That’s London there.’ After that he puts his ear to the wall of the neighboring apartment and whispers: ‘That’s Paris there.’ Whereupon the Gestapo agent hurries around to the neighboring flats, only to find in one of them a high official of the German S. S. administration, and in the other one a German officer in uniform.

The reason this is so important and rather than sharing an example of modern gallows humor, is because it shows how the enemy, the Germans, were the ones causing the Czech to appear to break the law. Notice that in the example the Czech retained his morale code because he didn’t do anything wrong, he could not be faulted by the Gestapo. The same concept applies soldiers in combat using modern gallows humor. The above example was shared because, not only was it tastefully illustrated, it doesn’t have an offensive words or ideas that would be inappropriate for a college paper.

Gallows humor allows soldiers and veterans alike to overcome the reality of what they are seeing and reframe it under a positive, if morbid context. Basically, gallows humor and cynicism both are built-in self-defense mechanisms. The civilian world doesn’t understand and therefore can’t appreciate humor that comes from deadly and life-threatening situations. To be clear, it is not wrong that civilians can’t understand this type of humor.

Veterans have this type of humor and worldview entrenched in them and from this student’s experience it is very difficult to change. The effects of this difference in humor cause veterans who can’t change, or keep their brand of humor to themselves, is negative. Negative experiences can cause the cynicism towards the civilian world to become permanent leading to difficulties for the veteran. Yet, it is important to remember that this is all a part of the transitioning process.

The transitioning process from one thing to another is difficult for anybody. Soldiers moving from the military world to the civilian world experience their own trials and tribulations. Not only is the soldier moving to a new career path, but also a new way of looking at humor.

A significant aspect of the military to point out, once again, is the importance of following the Army Values. Everything a soldier does is for the team. It’s for the mission. It’s for the country. This leads to unconscious selfless behavior on the part of the veteran. These traits are highly desirable by employers, but not so with the new peer group the veteran will encounter.

Selfless behavior is typically unrewarded and are completely voluntary (Rose et al, 2017). Yet, in the military these behaviors are required and heavily rewarded, i.e. The Medal of Honor. To say the change from the military world to the civilian world is shocking would be an understatement. The veteran must understand that selfless behavior in the civilian workplace is not rewarded and, in this student’s experience, the veteran will be someone easily manipulated to carry out extra work.

Rose et al indicate the civilian world operates on a concept called Individualism. This concept is defined as a focus inward and, “…on immediate surroundings, i.e. family (2017).” This concept lends to the idea of every man for himself, making the civilian world subversively cut-throat. The military, on the other hand, tries to structure the organization to be more like a family, a collective effort of all involved. Though, this doesn’t mean the civilian world doesn’t try to be understanding of veterans. There are many programs in place to attempt to make the transition easier, but they don’t always work. Sometimes the differences are just too great.

In conclusion, although the different types of organizational humor exist in both the military world and the civilian world, the humors are employed and interpreted contrarily. From the thin line between aggressive humor and mild aggressive humor to the stark difference in the way self-defeating humor is viewed, these are two very diverse ways of thinking. Because the civilian world cannot understand, not for lack of trying, the cynicism and the gallows humor veterans find themselves having a harder time fitting in. For veterans, mechanisms that were once self-protecting, have become a hinderance. Which is confusing for the veteran and the civilian alike but proves the point that the difference in humor leads to a very tough transition process.

The Army is fond of saying, “Only 1% of the American population serve.” This student was unable to locate empirical evidence, but the point this quote brings up remains. A small portion serve so the military can’t expect the civilian world to fully understand what its like to live in such an environment. And with the difference in humor and perception veterans are bound to have a difficult time transitioning to the civilian world.

Cite this paper

Veterans’ Humor. (2021, Jun 22). Retrieved from https://samploon.com/veterans-humor/

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