Michael Cundall Jr.
The Importance of Blunt Humor
We all have to face difficult situations. Some of them of our making and others the world drops unceremonoiusly in our laps, as in the case of Commander Puller below. How we deal with it is crucial. Wit, even dark with has it's place. Lucky for use there's a name for that sort of humor: Laconic Wit. This type of humor is one
that can help us in so many ways.
One way Laconic Wit is so particularly valuable, is the power it has to make certain points crystal clear. There is nothing like humor to cut right to the heart of the matter. There are few other communication styles that we use that can do what humor does so effectively. There’s a name for a sort of the quick-cutting humor, well known throughout history: Laconic Wit. The term itself comes from the area around the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta, Laconia because the ancient Spartans were renown for their penchant for this sort of humor. I’ve mentioned them before in other posts.
Here’s an example of Laconic Wit. It’s not exactly a joke, but there is, like with most Laconic sayings, humor buried there. Wit isn’t always laugh out loud funny, but whatever exactly it is, it’s squarely in the realm of humor. Polycratidas was a Spartan emissary and when he was asked by a dignitary if he had come publically or privately, he responded “If we succeed, publically. If not, privately.” Another example comes from U.S. commander Chesty Puller, who, when he was surrounded by the enemy, remarked, "We've been looking for the enemy for some time now. We've finally found him. We're surrounded. That simplifies things." If you want to see more of them, please check out the Wikipedia page devoted to these sayings https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Laconic_phrases. It’s not an accident that most of the examples come from areas related to statecraft or warfare.
Why would we choose to use such humor, especially in times of tension? The answer seems to come from a couple of places. There are two distinct ways that Laconic Wit seems to function. The first is that it aptly, quickly, or directly brings out a point that is present, clearly important, but something we might, for the sake of politeness, cover over. For Commander Puller, he’s being ironic. He’s also focusing on the positive. They have, indeed, found the enemy, so that problem’s sovled. His clever way of relating the facts admits an often fatal flaw for a commander—allowing his unit to be surrounded. Clearly a no-no if you want to win. Unless that was part of his secret strategy. He could have just gone straight into normal emergency speak and declare the tactical blunder and plead for help. But he didn’t. He acknowledged it, and then was clearly now dealing with the consequences.
The second function of the Laconic Wit is to identify an issue rather quickly. Take the Spartan emissary. His response is all about highlighting the important issue: his being there to accomplish something important. So important that he’d rather not advertise any failure. Success? Advertise away. His answer also probably made his professional partner, the opposing dignitary, feel a little more at ease as well. Polycratidas uses the wit in a way that reaches the other dignitary about a topic that the two share. It’s like wryly sharing an issue or complaint with only someone who would share that sort of understanding with you—like a person in the same professional field.
A final aspect that comes in some, but not all cases of Laconic Wit, is the treatment of a tragedy or problem through the lens of humor. As we know, when we use humor near in time to situations that are tragic or distressing, it can make the situation easier to deal with. The humor doesn’t make Commander Puller’s situation less tragic or fraught with difficulty and danger, or Polycratidas’ position as a dignitary there to accomplish some important mission of state less weighty, but it does make the perspective of the individual lighter going into dealing with the issues at hand. And as many have said before, attitude is crucial.
We would do well to cultivate the use of this humor in our lives. It can make a number of less enjoyable situations, even desperate situations all the more tolerable and easier to deal with. This alone should be reason enough to try and be wittier.