The last laugh: Can humour and a bag of coconuts be the antidote?

Stephanie Davies is getting back to normality – with the help of humour and hand sanitiser. 

In the final scene of the 1973 jail-break movie, Papillon, a half-insane, toothless Steve McQueen hugs his pal Dustin Hoffman goodbye, throws a bag of coconuts off a cliff into the sea and jumps in after them, risking death for freedom.

Hoffman, institutionalised and afraid of the unknown, decides he’s better off in the familiar confines of the prison the men have been incarcerated in. McQueen is last seen perched on his unsteady raft, bobbing on the waves and drifting to the horizon.

This was me and my husband a few weeks ago when I threw my metaphorical coconuts into the car and headed off to deliver my first piece of face-to-face work since lockdown eased. Before the pandemic, my weeks were full of travel and events.

I love travelling and being in front of an audience. I felt like Steve McQueen, thrilled at the chance of freedom. I couldn’t get out of the house quick enough. Meanwhile my husband, who works from home, was the Dustin Hoffman figure, but with less hair. He waved me off teary-eyed and shuffled sadly back inside to the safe familiarity of the coffee machine and the toaster.

My ‘escape’ took almost as much planning as Papillon’s. Things ain’t what they used to be in the world of face-to-face events. For starters you need space; lots of it. I was delivering training to a group of six. Normally this could be done in a small room around a table.

It is still okay to laugh in the right circumstances. Humour can relieve pressure and bring people together.

We needed the client’s largest meeting room. We needed windows that opened. We needed a door that could be opened both ways with a hip or an elbow to avoid touching handles. We needed a full-on covid-19 risk assessment.

I packed my kit like a soldier preparing for war. It included six mini hand sanitisers, six novelty dispensers, six face masks of various designs, a pack of surgical gloves, six packs of anti-bac wipes, six packets of Skittles and six packets of tissues. This, I reckoned, would cover all eventualities. I also packed a tape measure, to ensure everyone stayed two metres apart. 

Usually, I start sessions with an icebreaker. Often, there is a tactile element that people can do if they feel comfortable (I take pains to discourage any ‘Handsy’ Howards). One of my favourite ice breakers is a game called ‘pull my finger’.

No, it doesn’t involve on-demand flatulence. But it does involve contact. But as fingers are now little fleshy sticks of danger, the prospect of a quick round of ‘pull my biohazard’ has less appeal. So the icebreakers needed a rethink.

Humour and laughter are a core element of the sessions I run, but laughter gets a bad rap nowadays because, when it’s too raucous, it can spread droplets, and no one likes to be in a room full of droplets anymore.

For this reason I had to carefully pitch my funniness at the right level, and dial it down subtly to keep things on the safe side of exuberance. I took an air horn as a precaution, to sound in case anyone was laughing too much.

With all this planning I’m pleased to report that the session went well. People were understandably nervous at first, but once we all realised we were in a safe environment, it was joy to be back with people in a work environment, even if that environment was different to the one before.

Anxiety will be a big feature for businesses coming out of lockdown. Understandably so. The most successful message of the Government’s hashed response to the corona virus pandemic was ‘Stay At Home’. It stuck. Now people must get used to not staying at home.

When all the right safety measures are in place, one way of making people feel comfortable and reducing anxiety is through appropriate use of humour. It is still okay to laugh in the right circumstances. Humour can relieve pressure and bring people together. Humour can be your bag of coconuts. 


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