WHEN BARTLEBY reflects on life’s lessons, he always remembers his grandfather’s last words: “A truck!” Bartleby’s uncle also suffered an early demise, falling into a vat of polish at the furniture factory. It was a terrible end but a lovely finish. Whether you find such stories amusing will depend on taste and whether you have heard them before. But a sense of humour is, by and large, a useful thing to have in life. A study of undergraduates found that those with a strong sense of humour experienced less stress and anxiety than those without it. Humor can be a particular source of comfort at work, where sometimes it can be the only healthy reaction to setbacks or irrational commands from the boss. The comedy stems, in part, from the way that the office hierarchy requires the employees to put up with the appalling behaviour of the manager. The healthiest kind of workplace humor stems from the bottom up, not from the top down. Often the most popular employees at work are those who can lighten the mood with a joke or two.
Zoom has zapped humour
A downside of remote working is that moments of shared humour are harder to create. Many a long meeting at The Economist has been enlivened by a subversive quip from a participant. These jokes only work when they are spontaneous and well-timed. Trying to make a joke during a Zoom conference call is virtually impossible; by the time one has found the “raise hand” button and been recognised by the host, the moment has inevitably passed. This is a shame, as most of us could do with a laugh now and again to get through the pandemic. Work is a serious matter but it cannot be taken seriously all the time. Sometimes things happen at work that are inherently ridiculous. Perhaps the technology breaks down just as the boss is in mid-oration, or a customer makes an absurd request. (Remember the probably apocryphal story of a person who rang the equipment manufacturer and asked them to fax through some more paper when the machine ran out?) There is also something deeply silly about management jargon. Most people will have sat through presentations by executives who insist on calling a spade a “manual horticultural implement”. Too many managers use long words to disguise the fact they have no coherent message to impart. Such language is ripe for satire or at the very least a collective game of “buzzword bingo”.
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The Jeep stopped on the muddy slope. Sunil was eager to show me that the vehicle would “hold” and not roll back. Unfortunately, the loose soil underneath the wheels spoilt his plans. As the SUV started inching back, he put it into gear, revved up, and stopped in front of the office, which was just ahead. He was happy showing off his new “toy”. Then his expression changed. “Do you think someone would question this purchase? Point fingers? You know, this is from my personal savings. It pinched. But I really needed a new car and I got a good price for the old.” It was a question from someone who cherished hard work, integrity, and honesty right from his youth. As a young man, he had trekked long and hard, along a river that passed through his village. It was an exercise in connecting to the water and the earth it nurtured. And the simple villagers he came across. He gathered a few of his friends. That group of young friends shaped his purpose in life and the name of the organization he would lead and guide for nearly 20 years—Yuva Mitra. It gave him as much pleasure treating visitors to some unusual local eateries as talking about his plans for social upliftment. “We must institutionalize; they must stand on their feet. True development is not charity. It must be sustainable. Learn. Teach. Train.” I walked among the farmers and the goatherds. Many of them women, who had just found their feet and voice. They were just a few of the thousands of women, youth, farmers, and children who had already benefited from Yuva Mitra’s work in water resource development and management, agriculture and livelihood development, institution building, and health. His religion remained sustainable people empowerment through people participation, without any political coloring. He was always building bridges between rich corporate houses looking for an efficient and transparent channel for sustainable social development and the marginalized who had otherwise resigned themselves to poverty and hardship. Sunil, my friend and teacher, I am sorry, but we are all pointing fingers at you now. So many are waiting for you to lift them from misery. You have to build so many more bridges yet. How could you, someone so full of life, so giving of hope, go away so young? Today, you would have stepped into your 50th year. Rest never came to you easily. Hopefully, you are now at peace. Developing another world. Sunil Pote passed away on September 13, 2020.