How many times a day do you make a quip? Are you a quipster or more frugal with quips? Me? I love quips, I try to use them as much as I can. As a teacher, I have found that a good quip does wonders for attention and engagement. It helps bring people back into the conversation because they have to process a bit more info and figure out the quip and its meaning or relation to the topic at hand. A good quip is a powerful tool.
Often times quips or smart-ass remarks are given short shrift. My mother always used to say that no one likes a class clown, but that statement never seemed true. My classmates always seemed to like me. A couple even commented at a reunion how they remembered me as funny. My teachers could have probably dealt with fewer remarks from me. As I have grown older and tried to understand how to best use quips in work and with others, I have found that the well-placed quip does quite a bit for helping people stay attentive and engaged. It provides a momentary break, but a break related to the subject matter of the moment. Quips engage us, refocus us, and lighten the mood.
Quips are a form of humor. Smart-ass remarks, call-backs, or witty observations rely on the basic mechanisms that make humor work. Generally, humor is the perception of an incongruity that causes our minds to seek to make the incongruity fit. They are sort of like riddles, but instead of being a difficult puzzle, the idea is to give our minds a sort of cognitive treat by making it work but not too hard like a riddle. Since so much of what humans do, for better and worse, is upstairs in our heads, we have evolved to enjoy brain teasers and incongruities. We want to make the world fit together. Humor shakes our mind out of its habitual paths causing us to see the world in new ways. When a quip alerts us to the funny ha-ha and sometimes the funny strange as well, we are motivated to explore the conditions that gave rise to the incongruity and figure it out. Take the title of this article. Clearly this is a play on the Devo song “Whip It.” But more than simply being a play on words, the quip does more. That song isn’t simply a title I use to make a pun—that’s pretty weak as far as humor goes. That song, the video, the uniqueness of it as music, and the way in which the song title itself has taken on a life beyond the cultural moment in which it arose (I can’t say there’s much about 80’s music I recall), are brought to bear, cognitively, when the reader reads that title. The title, as a pun, invites the reader to enjoy and learn. Maybe you like the pun and maybe you don’t. But either way, thinking about it and reacting to it gets you more invested in the article. You see what I did there right?
Sometimes the best quipsters, a far more jovial group than the homonymic hipsters, don’t really know how they do what they do. For them it’s effortless; for others, quips are almost a foreign language. They understand them, but they’ll be buggered if they can’t quip well. Their timing is off, they seem to say the wrong things. But don't despair. We can learn to quip just as we learn any skill. Reading sheet music was and still is a mystery to me, but I think if I settled down and paid more attention, focused, I could learn to do it. Good quips do a lot without seeming to do anything. That’s why they are both so helpful day to day, but also so very interesting to understand.
Quips aren’t all just clever remarks and witticisms. Sometimes we quip and tease in negative ways. Sometimes our quips are dressed up bullies. When I make a passive aggressive quip about someone’s idea, a quip that is sarcastic, I can harm that person and come across as a “funny” guy. The cost to me is little and the benefit can be socially positive. The target of my bullying quip might face unwarranted skepticism and seem less valuable in the eyes of her coworkers. This is when quips are bad. If the intent and or outcome of such quips are harmful to the group, then I would say we need to look at our interactions and see what the issue is and explore. As my teachers probably told me, we like it when you’re funny but don’t make this the entirety of your day. Be serious sometimes.
Quips aren’t always bad. If I am in an office or classroom where the atmosphere is tight and unfriendly it may be that quipping, even quipping it good, is less than welcome. For anyone in a situation such as this, I would advise trying to figure out why. An environ where quips don’t make it into the normal ebb and flow of conversation and interaction, is a place where creativity is stifled: where engagement and enjoyment of work are absent. If that’s the case, then steps need to be taken to introduce some levity and enjoyment. Perhaps you can start with a quip.