The Art of Giving an Effective Non-Answer

I’ll admit it.

Over the years there have been times when students have asked me a question to which I didn’t quite know the answer, but for some reason, I decided to answer anyway. Sometimes I got lucky and gave the right answer, and sometimes I’ve given the wrong answer. And sometimes I gave an answer that was so generic but hopefully sounded intelligent, that the student just accepted whatever I said, and made sure to never ask me a question again.

The classic non-answer.

That’s how I felt when reading one of the responses Dan Ariely gave in one of his recent advice columns in the Wall Street Journal. Here was the question:

I’ve noticed that jokes that are meant to be funny sometimes come across as painful or offensive. Is there a way to know whether a joke is going to hurt people’s feelings?

And here was Dan’s response:

According to the behavioral scientist Peter McGraw of the University of Colorado, Boulder, jokes are funny when they involve “benign violations”: They transgress a social norm but not so much that they become objectionable. The trick is to hit the sweet spot between amusing and offensive.

I don’t really see an answer to the question. Of course the trick is to hit the sweet spot between amusing and offensive. That’s what the person is asking – how do you do that. How do you transgress a social norm but not to the point it becomes objectionable?

I decided to look up “benign violations” to see exactly what it meant, and here is what I found:

The theory builds on work by a linguist, Tom Veatch, and integrates existing humor theories to propose that humor occurs when and only when three conditions are satisfied: (1) a situation is a violation, (2) the situation is benign, and (3) both perceptions occur simultaneously. For example, play fighting and tickling, which produce laughter in humans (and other primates), are benign violations because they are physically threatening but harmless attacks. However, play fighting and tickling cease to elicit laughter either when the attack stops (strictly benign) or becomes too aggressive (malign violation). Jokes similarly fail to be funny when either they are too tame or too risqué.

All of that makes perfect sense. However, it still does not tell you if a joke is going to be funny or not, until you tell it, since you never know how people are going to react.

Dan Ariely offered this example as part of his answer

…The Onion recently ran the headline “Harvard Officials Say $8.9 Million Donation From Jeffrey Epstein Was From Brief Recovery Period When He Wasn’t a Pedophile.” When I asked my friends how funny they found this headline, the ones from Harvard found it much less funny.

So is the headline funny or not? The answer is it depends on whether people find it funny or not. Some people did, some people did not.

So in terms of answering the original question: Is there a way to know whether a joke is going to hurt people’s feelings?, Dan references a theory of “benign violations”, that to me basically says you won’t know if something is funny or not until either you go too far or not far enough – but the only way to know that is when you actually go too far or not far enough. And even then, different people will react differently to the same exact joke.

So to me, I don’t think there really is an answer to the question as to whether a joke is going to hurt someone’s feelings, except to say, it depends. But I guess that doesn’t sound intelligent enough…

*image from Motley News

7 thoughts on “The Art of Giving an Effective Non-Answer

  1. It definitely depends!! I recall arriving here in the US with my sarcastic humour and jokes about political correctness at the ready. Oh boy…. I learned quickly 😉


  2. Funny or not? Interesting question and one that I ask myself all the time before submitting humor pieces…especially in the scope of a teacher’s lens: If I push or heighten the joke a little, will my student’s parents find my work inappropriate? Will my principal? As a writer, those questions have held me back quite a bit, but one must consider the hand that feeds them.


  3. Interesting discussion! When I was teaching, I tried to be honest with my students about a question which had me stumped. Usually, I would try to come back to them the next day with an answer.


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