Ambiguity Can Be Funny

Call me a cab; OK you’re a cab.

 The purpose of this blog is to convince my readers that since people enjoy humor and humor enjoys uncertainty, maybe readers could learn to see uncertainty more favorably, maybe even enjoy uncertainty (as in positive uncertainty). But convincing people to see uncertainty favorably is like convincing someone that a bad joke is funny. Most people think uncertainty is bad and don’t realize it can be funny. Uncertainty’s humor helps us better understand how our minds deal with what is vague or unclear.

In his 2015 book, Nonsense, The Power of Not Knowing, Jamie Holmes shows how humor exposes our rapid-fire expectations, assumptions and interpretations by toying with them. He says the mind state caused by ambiguity is called uncertainty, and its an emotional amplifier. It makes anxiety more agonizing and pleasure especially enjoyable. Puzzles and humor illustrate our relationship with the particular ways our minds cope with the incoherent. Holmes illustrates this with these humorous English phrases that tourists found abroad:

  • In a hotel lobby in Bucharest: The lift is being fixed for the next day. During that time we regret that you will be unbearable.
  • In a cocktail lounge in Norway: Ladies are requested not to have children in the bar.
  • In a French elevator: Please leave your values at the front desk.
  • In an airline ticket office in Copenhagen: We take your bags and send them in all directions.

The humor hinges on ambiguous meanings. We get the joke when we grasp how the alternative meanings are actually somehow sensible. What I believe is valuable, and therefore sensible, about uncertainty is that it eliminates certainty. Certainty is not ambiguous; there are no alternative expectations, assumptions or interpretations.

“Call me a cab” is ambiguous, which leads to multiple interpretations and its potential humor. “Be positive about uncertainty” is ambiguous, which leads to multiple interpretations and its potential value. The value of positive uncertainty is that it increases possibilities. It allows us (even encourages us) to examine our own assumptions, expectations and interpretations and to see alternative possibilities. Can you see uncertainty a little more favorably?

The secret of humor is surprise. Aristotle

The secret of uncertainty is surprise, a way to experience the unexpected. H B


This entry was posted in Wisdom. Bookmark the permalink.


  1. Cynthia Schroeder says:

    Humor helps form a bulwark against despair and hopelessness. I just read a speech which MLK gave in London shortly before he went to Oslo to receive the Nobel Piece Prize in 1964. In this remarkably astute, passionate and penetrating speech concerning civil rights, bigotry, and oppression, MLK used bits of unexpected humor here and there which riveted my attention even more to what he was saying and how he was saying it. It is remarkable and reinforces the ideas you speak about in this most recent posting. Thank you.

  2. Eugene Unger says:

    I am positive you will not be uncertain about arriving here at 9:14 exactly 🙄



  3. Betsy Collard says:

    Love this one! B

    Date: Mon, 18 Jan 2016 20:48:43 +0000 To:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.