Humor That Works: Connection

Jan. 1, 2020
You have a tough day at work, so when you get home, you throw on some music, pour a glass of wine (or, in my case, some chocolate milk), and […]

You have a tough day at work, so when you get home, you throw on some music, pour a glass of wine (or, in my case, some chocolate milk), and text a friend to vent about the day. She responds quickly, commiserates with you, reminds you that your favorite ice cream is sitting in the freezer, and even shares a joke to make you laugh.

Your friend isn’t a fellow human but a Microsoft chatbot names Xiaoice (pronounced "Shao-Ice"), and every day, millions of Chinese users exchange texts with her about work, life, and everything in between.

"This is what we call an empathic computing framework," explains Di Li, Microsoft’s general manager for Xiaoice. "To create an AI framework, you need to choose EQ or IQ. We chose to do EQ first and add IQ later." The result is a chatbot that people treat as a friend, sending her gifts, sharing personal details with her, and (I’m assuming) trying to set her up with someone like Dom, the voice assistant from the Domino’s Pizza app.

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Xiaoice isn’t the only AI with a predisposition for humor. The Google Assistant can tell you a joke, you can play games with Alexa, and Siri can be downright sassy — just say "Hello Cortana" (the name of the Microsoft voice assistant) to her and she’ll respond, "Very funny. I mean, not funny ‘ha-ha’ but funny."

Computational humor, a  branch of AI dedicated to teaching computers how to understand and generate humor, has been around since the early 1990s. Since then, we’ve seen computers that write puns (JAPE), Create double entendres (DEVIANT), and detect sarcasm (SASI). Yes, The Simpsons did that last one first. We’ve also seen robots perform stand-up and improv, and we don’t seem too far from Marvin the Paranoid Android from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Why even try to make computers funny? "Because laughter is such a crucial part of what it means to be human," says Gary McKeown, a psychologist at Queen’s University Belfast. "We won’t have convincing artificial intelligence until our machines can laugh along with us."

Humor is particularly important when it comes to building relationships. "Humor has a way of instantly connecting us with each other," says Vinith Misra, former Watson research and technical consultant on HBO’s Silicon Valley. "We can look at humor as a sort of WD-40 of human interactions"

Which is exactly why humans need to learn humor as well.


How we connect with people has a significant impact on not only our ability to get things done but our happiness as well. We humans are social creatures; we need relationships to survive. They’re also required for every single business that exists.

Regardless of your role or industry, relationships permeate your work. Managers, direct reports, peers, clients, supplies – they’re all words for the same thing: relationships. Why are relationships important in business? Because they are business. "Business is still built on people," says Scott Stratten, CEO of UnMarketing. "People do business with people they like, know, and trust. And if you believe business is built on relationships, make building them your business."

At the fundamental level, organizations are systems of human relationships. As individuals, we have to execute and think, but in an organization we also have to communicate and connect. Strong connections lead to better work.

But not all work relationships are created equal — some will propel your career, others will keep you sane, and a few can even be detrimental. A meaningful relationship is characterized as healthy, caring, long-lasting, and of personal significance. It’s with a person who help you grow, is there when you need them, and call you out when you’re being a bit of a nincompoop.

The more you can build these strong, meaningful relationships, the more likely you are to not only succeed but also be more satisfied with your career.

But how do you do it?


According to the late George Levinger, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, every relationship is in one of 5 stages:
1. Acquaint
2. Build
3. Continue
4. Deteriorate
5. End

The Acquaintance Phase is the default stage for most relationships, when people are just getting to know each other. It’s the people you’ve recently met or who you see occasionally: in the hallways, by the water cooler, or awkwardly in the bathroom with that one person on the same schedule as you.

The Buildup Phase is when you begin creating more comfort and trust with the other person. You’d invite this person to a house part but not your wedding party. In a professional context, this can take the form of the beginning of a mentorship or as members of a new team or committee.

In the Continuation stage, there’s a deepening of trust and commitment to the relationship, a corresponding increase in the amount of influence both people can exercise, and an ever great likelihood that you’ll have to drive this person to the airport or watch their dog for a few days.

This is the ideal stage to be in with your managers, direct reports, and mentors/mentees after working with them for a period of time. It’s also where you’ll reap the benefits of better communications, improved productivity, and an increased satisfaction with work.

During the Deterioration Phase, the relationship starts to become less intimate. Despite its negative connotation, this is often a natural and necessary phase for professional connections. No one works the same job forever, and your level of interaction with certain people is always changing.

Without paying special effort and attention to its maintenance, the relationship can revert back to an earlier stage in the personal relationship continuum, end all together, or live in Facebook purgatory where you see their life play out in pictures, status updates, and recommendations for things to do in Paris.

And finally, all relationships end, either through passive lack of contact, intentional breaking of ties, or some other means.

So what determines the stage you’re in with someone?

It’s often in how you connect with them emotionally and experientially. If you have very little emotional connection with someone and rarely see them, they’ll stay an acquaintance forever. As you become more emotionally connected and spend more time together, you’ll build the relationship.  And once you have a strong emotional connection, you’ll stay in Continuation even if you don’t see that person all that frequently.

Knowing which stage each of your relationships is in, and where you’d like or need it to be, allows you to better leverage your connections for results and happiness. The underlying theme through all of these stage, and the key to connecting closer, is in emotion and experience.

This article contains excerpts from Tarvin’s book Humor That Works: The Missing Skill for Success and Happiness at Work. Look for the next article in this series, "Humor and Leadership" in an upcoming issue of ISE magazine.

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About the Author: Andrew Tarvin is CEO of Humor That Works, a consultancy; and is the author of Humor That Works: The Missing Skill for Success and Happiness at Work. Drew has worked with more than 35,000 people at over 250 organizations, including Microsoft, the FBI, and the International Association of Canine Professionals. He has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and Fast Company; and his TEDx talk has been viewed more than 4 million times. He loves the color orange, is obsessed with chocolate, and can solve a Rubik’s Cube (but it take like 7 minutes). For more information, please visit and connect on Twitter @drewtarvin as well as on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and LinkedIn.

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