In intimidating social situations like dates or parties, I feel most at ease when I can make someone laugh. Telling a joke or a silly story for a few chuckles helps me to relax — and usually helps loosen up the conversation.
I often use humor as an inclusive, warm tool to assess a new social audience. You can tell a lot about a person by what makes them laugh — or what doesn’t.
But recently it dawned on me that I also use humor as a shield — usually when I’m feeling uncomfortable, vulnerable, or a little threatened. When a conversation or a situation becomes overwhelming or uncomfortable, some people with ADHD retreat; I make impulsive jokes instead (for example, I made the nurse shake with laughter during my last blood test, much to my detriment). Sometimes, it gets me out of trouble and other times it buries me deeper in my ADHD hole.
You see, I can’t tell the difference between “fake laughter” and the real stuff. Since Brits communicate almost exclusively in subtext that often passes right by me undetected, things can get a bit tricky. These days, though, people aren’t sure what’s “OK” to laugh at in public and it can be hard to tell what’s authentically inappropriate. So I sometimes find myself coming across as a bit more cringey and awkward than I’d like to admit in the wrong circles.
As I work to gauge boundaries, it’s inevitable that I am going to cross the line and offend someone every now and then, especially if I’m getting carried away or becoming too comfortable too quickly, or they can’t quite put their finger on me. In those situations, the nerves start up and I’m more likely to accidentally blurt out something inappropriate (shocker!). Then I find myself reeling backward because the crowd’s eyes don’t match their smiles, or their glances go sideways around the group. If I can’t read someone or if I sense that something’s going wrong, I’ll ask or joke that I’m digging a hole. That doesn’t always go brilliantly either.
How Can You Get to Know Me If I Never Stop Joking?
I recently had a pre-date call with a very tightly strung feminist activist with a freight train’s worth of emotional baggage and more red flags than Chinese New Year bunting. I actually really liked her. She was fascinating, intelligent, and insightful. She had lived some hard experiences that piqued my interest. I felt we had a lot in common and I could learn from her perspective. Over the course of a 10-hour video conversation, we shared all sorts of things, including ADHD (she believes we like to set fires!). In the process of that often emotional encounter, we both became very vulnerable and opened up too much, too fast.
As the conversation got increasingly intense and the hour ever later (4am on a school night!), I made a few quips that were a bit edgy and funnier in my head than they were out loud. When I got that judge-y look back instead of a giggle, it compounded that “iceberg ahead” feeling, so I teased her and told her to lower her eyebrow.
The next morning, she cancelled our date and told me I did this “check” 8 times (she was counting!). I came across to her like I was insecure and demanding that she react with laughter – I was “one of those men who isn’t as funny as you think you are.”
When she called me out like that, I panicked. I forgot that this stranger and her opinion don’t actually matter, but I’ve heard similar words before from people who do. I felt very personally attacked by someone I realized I didn’t know well enough to trust, but had overshared with because she seemed open with me too. Her comment blindsided my happy, flirty attitude and my confidence took a direct hit. My cheeky grin vanished and I felt like I now had to explain myself, which comes off as defensive, because it is.
I immediately sent a gif from “Gladiator” where Russell Crowe roars “ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED?” at the desert arena crowd. This did not help my argument that I was actually more mature than I’d come across the previous night and that sleep deprived morning. In retrospect, I should have just shut up and put my phone away.
She circled like a shark and went in for the kill.
She said that my need to project and entertain a stranger made her feel like I needed her laughter and approval to validate myself and that, in the pursuit of that self-satisfaction, I wasn’t actually listening to her. She said her opinion and experiences were overshadowed by my seemingly relentless urge to have her applaud my every funny story or joke, which were sometimes related to sensitive information we were sharing. She thought I was trying too hard and it came across as patronizing by wanting that giggle, dismissing the fact that we’d spent hours on the phone so clearly she was already interested in me with or without the laughs (see, I was listening!).
How Can I Get Comfortable with Silence?
Once my defensive reflex subsided and I calmed down from the proverbial slap, I strangely felt I could be more relaxed in a serious way with her, which took away a lot of the pressure I had subconsciously put on myself. I learned through that conversation that it’s OK for someone not to laugh at every joke I make. Just because they’re not laughing doesn’t mean that they don’t like talking to me; they just didn’t like that joke or story, or they’re waiting to speak (good luck!) or I’ve accidentally spoken over them. In spite of my learned instinct, it’s not actually my responsibility to make someone smile — that happens naturally – and the conversation won’t stall or fail just because there’s no canned laughter every few minutes.
In this instance, a stupid, poorly timed quip could have totally dismissed and trivialized something deeply meaningful and the vulnerabilities of someone I was trying to get to know, which is genuinely offensive and insensitive. My failsafe use of humor made this woman feel foolish and even resent me, making it harder for her to trust me — the exact opposite of my intention.
To pick out the few positives in her closing rant before she bade me a somewhat aggressive farewell, she said there are more interesting things about me than my jokes and quips. She asked how people could get to truly know me if my outstanding priority is making them laugh. She wasn’t paying to see a show or waiting around for my defenses to go down. She wanted to get to know me, warts and all — which is a lot less funny, and a lot more intimidating (though I feel we’d shared enough at that stage).
Ultimately, shark girl and I established that we simply don’t share the same sense of humor (in that I have one). From this experience, I learned what topics to avoid when joking around. When I was done licking my wounds that weekend, I went out with someone else who was a closer fit, and she was downright hilarious.
Bad Jokes and ADHD: Next Steps
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Updated on July 23, 2021