The Couch: Finding Things a Bit Too Funny?

The Couch is a place to exchange ideas and brainstorm, not only for its contributors but also for our readers who engage in the ensuing discussions. Sometimes, in spite of our needing to be a neutral language processor, our human side comes to the fore, and some traditional advice on ethics may not be enough. Thank you to this week’s anonymous contributor for the Couch!

Lately, I’m not completely sure why, but I’m beginning to find many situations really funny. By no means do I intend to make light of some people’s situations in court as it is undoubtedly the most trying experience of their lives. But sometimes I feel like I am like that man in Mary Poppins, who can’t stop laughing, who floats around the room, for whom “It’s getting worse every year.”

For example, not long ago I was called to interpret in a civil litigation case. During the deposition, the defense attorney seemed abnormally distracted and disorganized. He wouldn’t stop looking things up in his notes, kept forgetting the witnesses’ and parties’ names, and mumbled things to himself several times in a low voice. He kept taking off his glasses and putting them back on.

A normal interpreter might have gently asked him to speak more clearly, etc., but for some reason I had to repress the urge to burst out laughing, and I nearly failed at the attempt – obviously my laughter wouldn’t have gone over well for anyone, least of all myself.

Another time, I found the way a witness had come dressed to court to be irresistibly funny, and this time I let a burst of laughter slip – luckily, no one noticed. 

Again, I know court is serious and most of the time is not a laughing matter. Maybe it’s just the luck of the draw for me where I’m faced with these situations, or maybe I’m just a cheerful character and find more things funny than the average person does. Understand I am not meaning to laugh at people contemptuously nor make fun of them, I just find things, people, and situations funny. What do you do when you have the urge to laugh? We are taught to control our emotions when faced with horrendous crimes or tragic stories, but what about the comical side?

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Body photo “Mimus polyglottos1” by Ryan Hagerty at Wikimedia Commons. Image in the public domain.

7 thoughts on “The Couch: Finding Things a Bit Too Funny?”

  1. Kenneth Barger says:

    Try to cultivate a sense of existential dread.

  2. A few of the situations I observed:

    #1 – During an in-person court assignment, while all the defendants were waiting for the judge to arrive and watching a video of their rights, one of the defendants was playing a loud video on her phone (to the point that it was disruptive to others). The prosecutor kept looking at her with a perplexed look, but never said anything.

    #2 – I was on a Zoom hearing in a similar situation (various defendants waiting for the judge to show up), and one of the defendants had his camera on, which showed him lying on the couch in what could have been his PJs.

    #3 – Another Zoom hearing in DR Court – The parties started arguing with each other (back and forth, back and forth…) so badly that the judge ended up muting both of them for the remainder of the hearing. They couldn’t even say goodbye.

    I don’t know if we should laugh or cry… Maybe both. 😉

  3. Edina Toole says:

    Thank you so much for sharing these fun(ny) situations. It cheered me up to see that beside the serious, there is a lighter side to our profession as well. What a relief!!!!

  4. Janis Palma says:

    This is one place where I feel our jobs are so similar to actors. If you have ever been on a stage (or in front of a camera) acting, you know that feeling: you want to laugh, and the actor standing in front of you wants to laugh, and you both know you want to laugh, but you can’t because if you do… you’ll never stop. Yes! It absolutely happens!

  5. Gio Lester says:

    The lighter side of things keep us grounded, I guess. Yes, court is a serious environment, but so is life and laughter is always present. It’s a matter of how we handle it.

  6. Robin Ragan says:

    I interpret for a lot of sad, tragic stories so usually there is no place for laughter. One time in the middle of a story about how a woman’s son had died in a car accident, she added a detail that didn’t seem to have anything to do with the story. It was so out of left field that I accidentally laughed. She was in tears through much of the story. She said something like: he had ordered shrimp at the restaurant that night. Once I started saying it, I just couldn’t help myself. It happens. We are human! Luckily we were not in court, just a private setting.

  7. Margaret Wolfe-Roberts says:

    Ah ha ha! I had an experience similar to this just a few days ago! Like you, I was interpreting in a serious situation, it was a jury trial and I was up front with the witness. The case was a felony sexual assault case and the defendant’s wife was expressing her views about certain sexual practices, so quite the delicate topic. All of a sudden she referred to a certain sex practice with a tone of great disgust, and said “I can’t believe it!!!” (that her husband would ever do such a thing). There was an objection, and the attorneys and judge began to talk. From the emotional inertia of what I had just interpreted, I had such an urge to burst out laughing. I stumbled through the next half minute, keeping my head down and trying desperately to focus on the hair color of the court reporting sitting in front of me. Finally I said “Your Honor the interpreters are going to switch” and made a beeline for the back of the room where I could stand behind a wall and silently bust a gut while my wonderful colleague, who was mercifully close at hand, went to the front. I’m not sure what I would have done if my colleague had been out of the room at that moment!

    I think a healthy person is one who can find the humor in things. Taking things lightly can be an excellent way of handling stress, and as we know we are routinely presented with stressors in court, as well as many curious and unusual situations that come up during our work day. But how do we balance a sense of humor with the need for decorum and impartiality? Humor can be a great stress relief, but obviously we don’t want to offend people or distract from the proceeding. Even worse, what if the laughing interpreter were perceived as biased or incredulous? In the worst case scenario I can imagine it might even lead to a mistrial, or being removed from a case. Hopefully that would never happen, but it’s very important to remain visibly neutral.

    Some strategies to quell the inopportune urge to chuckle:

    Removing the stimulus
    -Avoid eye contact with others who may possibly also be amused.
    -Ask your colleague to take over, or ask for a break.
    -Tell yourself a new thought about the person or situation in order to replace the amusing thought.

    Covering up the moment
    -Pretend to sneeze or cough, or reach for your water.
    -Put your hand over your mouth to disguise a smile and rub your eyelids with forefinger and thumb.
    -If you must smile, squeeze your eyes shut and pull down the corners of your mouth as if wincing. Apologize if noticed.

    Physical distractions
    -Raise your eyebrows or bite your lip or tongue.
    -Scribble on your pages of notes.
    -Turn your head away momentarily
    -Squeeze your abdominal muscles tight to stop the involuntary movements

    Mental distractions
    -Look around the room. Admire the chandeliers or gaze out the window.
    -Give your brain an objective task to complete such as counting the chairs, or the number of people present.
    -Focus on your interpreting skills even harder.
    -Imagine getting a bucket of very cold water getting dumped over your head.

    -Maybe, tell yourself, You can laugh about this at home! and then do so, later.
    -Since you know this is a recurring challenge for you, pick a certain sobering topic in advance to focus on the next time you find yourself in this situation. Practice imagining it instantly and vividly so you can bring it to mind quickly.

    Oh boy, just coming up with this list has given me the chuckles all over again! Still, I wouldn’t have lasted as long as I have in this profession without a sense of humor, so I won’t chastise myself, or anyone else, for feeling the urge to giggle now and then. We just have to learn to channel and release those mirthful energies with the same expertise we bring to our daily work.

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