Adding value

I saw the following status on Facebook from a friend of mine:

Saw a homeless guy in SLC with a sign: “I bet you $1 you read this.” I lost the bet.

It’s interesting to me because only the most hardened anti-giving-away-money-to-homeless-people would still refuse to even consider giving this man a dollar. Even though his situation and needs were most likely similar to everyone else, if there was someone holding that sign next to a guy who just simply asked for help, I would venture to bet that most people will donate to the betting man.

What is it about humor that seems to add so much value? A homeless man on the street with a humorous sign will at last garner a smile. We might say something like, “I didn’t give him anything but I wasn’t really annoyed by his presence, either.” Someone on the street could hold a heart-breaking sign about how he lost his job, his wife has cancer, he feels hopeless and has no other options. He could describe his plight in great detail, and yet not only will people ignore him, but they may actually feel resentful.  What, exactly, do people resent when they see a man with such a sign? A difficult question that most would rather avoid than answer.

There’s something about humor that not only diffuses what could be a tense situation, but also adds value. We may not donate to the cause just yet, but we will tolerate its presence, maybe even laud it, and the chances of us donating to the cause grows. Why? Because we rofled. Maybe non-profit organizations could learn from this? A Doctors Without Borders comedy sketch? A Red Cross improv night? Perhaps the Salvation Army could replace all of those bell ringers during the Christmas season with people dressed up as Santa holding ironic/sarcastic signs? The mascot of the Peace Corp could be a lolcat? And what does it say about our society when a man with a witty sign wins out, but someone telling us how they lost their job doesn’t?

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Adding value

  1. Dear Mr. Ted,
    Mother Hen here.
    Your lolcat as Peace Corps mascot is a brilliant concept! Mother Hen might even know a couple of housecats she could nominate for the job with undoubtable, if unintentional, humorous potential.
    Now the natural question is, what role do you forsee for a chicken who can type? She is too modest to mention all of her other talents (radio show hostess, advice colum-nest, Mother of the Year, etc.), but would be happy to shill for a worthy cause.
    The door of the coop is always open to humans of good taste and refinement, so drop by Mother Hen’s Nest anytime!
    Charitably yours,
    Mother Hen
    http://motherhensnest.wordpress.com

  2. I feel like humor is often treated like a commodity in our society. People pay attention to what I say when I add humor to it or, at a minimum, make it seem clever. In essence, the people feel as if they’ve gained something from their encounter with that man and his sign so they’re not giving money away, they’re paying for services rendered.

    Maybe. It’s just a theory.

    • Ted

      I would agree. In an economy where we will gladly pay hundreds of dollars a month for entertainment alone, perhaps we’ve been conditioned to expect some kind of momentary pleasure from our encounters with people asking for money. And when someone makes us feel bad about either us, humanity, or just anyone in general, we withhold money as some kind of punishment, like refusing to tip an unpleasant waitress.

  3. dteeps

    I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but in England there is an organization called Comic Relief where they do humorous sketches as a way to raise money for charity. It’s a great idea, and it works well. People are usually willing to donate money to good charities, but our natures usually want to get something in return, even if it is just a couple of laughs.

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