The art of punching (customers included)

Have you ever thought why this is so:

  • ·        A middle-aged, white male can make a joke about politicians
  • ·        A middle-aged, white male can’t make jokes about gay people but a gay person can
  • ·        A disabled comedian can make jokes about dwarfs, but not an able-bodied person
  • ·        A black guy can make jokes about white people, but not the other way around.

The art of punching explains these social minefields.

In comedy parlance you have the notion of ‘punching up’ or ‘punching down’. It has nothing to do with actual punches, but is a metaphor to illustrate the power balance between the joke teller (comedian) and the object/subject of the joke.

For example, a middle-aged, white guy (able-bodies) cannot easily make jokes about gay dwarfs – because that would be ‘punching down’.

‘Punching up’ is about cutting someone who is in a more powerful position down to size, but punching down is very easily (especially in our current social dynamic) perceived as a form of bullying.

It is also very subtle, and there are obviously examples where it is possible to break the rule.

A white guy talking about other races can easily be perceived as racist – but not the other way around. But a white guy could make a joke about smart Asian kids, because whilst there is a racial element to the joke, there is an implicit (albeit grudging) acknowledgement of their intellectual superiority, so you are not really punching down. You may then weave in another joke about bad Asian drivers to even out the ledger so to speak.

The dynamics of human interaction and communications are volatile and fragile. That is why joke telling is complex. Any form of communication suffers because things are often construed in ways not intended.

It would be nice if all words could just be taken for what they are – without burdening them with additional baggage (like perceived power position). But that is just not the reality.

This is also evident in a customer interaction.

Customers are allowed to be rude and demanding – because they are punching up. The staff member is not allowed to be rude and demanding, because they are punching down.

A joke about an Asian driver should be funny if it is funny – irrespective of who tells it. But it s not the case.

A customer who is wrong and rude, should be able to be pulled into line. But it is just not possible.

We can’t simply tell a joke because it is funny, and we can’t simply tell the truth because it is the truth. That is just the way the world works.