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John Posada wondered: <<We say over and over that our writing should
not use humor as it can be misinterpreted and takes the chance of being
offensive to those who might not see the humor.>>
That's true, but only in a limited sense. "Misinterpretation" is a
potential problem with any writing, not just humor, and the solution is
not to avoid humor but to clearly identify it, and to ensure that the
real instructions (if any) are crystal clear.
The missing word that should be added to make your statement
comprehensive is "inappropriate". In this sense, "appropriate" humor
means that the context must support the use of humor. Stressed out
users in hand-to-hand combat with balky software under an obscene
deadline (techwhirlers, for instance) are not an appropriate context;
people who want to play "Doom" over the network are.
A second use of "inappropriate" means humor that some might consider
offensive or annoying. That's a much more subjective call, and I'm not
aware of any broadly useful touchstone that will tell you when that
might be the case. Closest I can come is that gentle humor based on
irony or expressed at the expense of something inanimate and with no
cultural significance (e.g., software rather than a crucifix) is often
"safe", whereas humor based on someone else's pain or humiliation or
stupidity or beliefs rarely is.
Cultural humor lies somewhere in between: there's a long tradition that
jokes about your own religion or ethnic or other group are safe if
presented only to that group, whereas jokes about someone else's group
aren't, unless everyone in your group unaminously enjoys humor directed
at the other group. (And then, the humor may be ethically questionable
even if it's "safe".) Given that you can't always be certain who is
listening, there's always the risk you'll offend someone. For example,
I once sat in at a boring presentation at an conference, and mind
wandering in a desperate attempt to stay awake, I invented an engineer
joke... which I figured would be safe given the audience
So I lean over and whisper to the guy sitting beside me. "How many
Exxon engineers does it take to change a lightbulb? 1000... 1 to change
the lightbulb, and 999 to clean up the oil spill." Yes, this was right
after the Exxon Valdez disaster. Yes, the speaker shot us a glare that
should have vaporized us on the spot when the guy laughed out loud. And
the second punchline? He showed me his ID badge, and he was an engineer
working for Exxon. Fortunately he had a good sense of humor. <g>
<<The two points (among others) that caught my eye were: "Before,
residents threw the water report away and never read it, but now they
not only read it, they look forward to receiving it... and they keep it
all year!" [second example snipped]>>
Context: people who are reading because they're interested, not because
they're trying to accomplish a task while stressed.
Solution: humor is appropriate... but not just humor; anything that
makes the material interesting to read is good.
<<Don't we want that?>>
Of course. But the context most of us work in won't permit it. When the
software and other things we document are flexible, responsive to user
needs, bug-free, and intelligently designed to support the task at
hand, people will approach our documentation in the right state of mind
to accept humor. That's not going to happen for a considerable time for
most of us.