Being Clever – and a Contest!

I saw “The Failure State of Clever” on John Scalzi’s blog today, and said “oh, yes.” Go take a second to read – the links should open in a new tab or window.

Yes, “The failure state of clever is ‘asshole’” is a wonderful phrase. But I didn’t say “oh yes” because it happens to me. Because it, sometimes, is me.

I’m lucky enough to not be a completely unfunny guy [1]. I get laughs sometimes – and they’re usually intentional. Heck, I run a comedy mailing list or three [2]. I know I’ve made people crack up at cons, in e-mails, in IM and over the phone. [See footnote #1 again.]

But there have been more than a few times where I’ve realized where I was trying to be clever, and it did bomb completely.


I think a clue is when it happens. It’s almost always when I’m talking (or e-mailing) people who are more successful than me, or whom I look up to. You know – the people you want to make a good impression with.

Double sigh.

I’m not sure how I can properly fix this. I’m not consciously to “fit in”, let alone trying too hard. If it was deliberate, that would be an easy fix. Getting a hold of things you only realize in retrospect – and fixing them before they become retrospect – is a tall order indeed. Hell, I’m not even sure that I am trying too hard. I think I’m just being a bit goofy (which I can be), and it’s the response – or lack thereof – that clues me in to the problem.

The contest

So, here’s the deal. I want your advice. Seriously. But I want to give you something for it. And we’re both in luck there.

My e-anthology of over 60 flash stories, Pencils Made This Scar, will go on sale 28 June 2010 on the web. It will also exist in a signed, numbered limited edition print run. (Hint – e-mail me now if you want to reserve a copy.)

And you can get a copy for free.

Send me a message or comment here explaining:

How do you avoid this failure state without being an automaton?

How do you “tell” when it is cool to let loose with the jokes, and when not?

Send your advice in an e-mail to this e-mail address. All e-mail addresses offering sincere advice [3] between now and midnight on the 28th of June will get a chance to win a signed, numbered copy of my limited edition print run chapbook Pencils Made This Scar.

[1] I don’t think there’s that many people who would just laugh to be polite.
[2] Although that’s curating rather than generating material.
[3] Move in with Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory is not sincere advice.

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  1. June 21, 2010

    Sorry, but I can't directly answer those questions as I have a similar thing going on as well – I can be funny as hell, but usually only when in the right mood and when I'm relaxed with the person I'm talking with.

    I think that's the important part – trying to be funny when you're not relaxed (i.e. first date) has too small of a chance to succeed. I don't know if this applies to jokes, since I'm more the over-the-top silliness sort of person who runs their mouth off.

    Damn, is it me or have I just answered the question? If so, it was purely by accident.

  2. June 25, 2010

    Part of becoming a functioning adult in most (!) cultures, is learning that particular group's social script – the unwritten rules for interacting with other people. The problem is – the rules are not (usually) written down, and because most people understand the rules, no one talks about them.

    One part of the social script includes humor. Knowing the kind (and timing) of acceptable humor in a particular situation helps us to feel comfortable as a group member. Relaxation, confidence, and an inherent understanding of unspoken social rules and cues leads to creating an environment where humor is easier, and social faux pas are more accepted.

    So how do you get there? Watch more people. That is how actors learn characterization. Not just by watching one person and copying/mimicking, but by watching other people in similar social situations.

    If I were to play a pregnant woman (and I have never been pregnant – so I don't have personal experience to work with) I would watch pregnant women – how they walk, move, sit, how they interact with other people. I would then craft my character from my observations.

    To translate this into learning a social script, I would watch the group you indicate that you admire. How does that particular group express humor? How does that particular group indicate acceptance, and rejection? What happens when other people use humor in that particular group? What does it look like?

    I am not suggesting that you curtail who you are, or that you assume the role of someone you are not (mostly, because *I* do find your sense of humor funny – but that might just say more about me than you, and it certainly says more about me than the groups of which you speak). I suggest that groups within society often have different rules and expectations that aren't advertised, and until you understand the rules of that group you WILL screw up. And jokes will fall flat, and feelings will get hurt, and social ostracism may (or may not) ensue. It just depends on the micro-culture of the group.

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