Private jokes: the power of a common language
“…so then he looked into my eyes and said, ‘But I don’t play video games.'”
“I guess you had to be there.”
Another awkward pause.
“No, really, it was funny… at the time…” Awkward trailing off to more awkward silence. A nervous laugh.
You’ve been there. You know you have. You’re telling a story, it’s a great story… but your listener doesn’t get it. But it’s so funny. You can’t stop laughing to yourself, until you see the politely blank expression and hesitant half smile on your companion’s face. Because what makes your story so great is that it hinges on a private joke, on a common language known only to those who were actually there.
While private jokes are awkward for those who weren’t there, they are powerful for those in the know. It’s why therapists recommend specific communication exercises for couples in marriage counseling. It’s why sports teams and the military have a tight cameraderie. It’s why you bonded with your sorority, fraternity, or your local running club. You all know what you’re talking about, even if the rest of the world does not.
Common language – private jokes, safe words, hand signals, certain looks – are communication shorthand. They contain not just the actual words, but the emotion, memory and innuendo from when the moment was created. They contain the meaning behind the emotion, the sentiment behind the memory, and the intention behind the innuendo.
I am fortunate enough to have a tribe of women I think of as my soul sisters. They do not all know each other and they come from different time periods of my life, but with each of them, there is a level of understanding that allows me to feel safe enough to call upon when I need to cry, to celebrate, or just want to share. Julie and I share a college history that included Carmina Burana, daffodils, “neanderthal lover”, “biology lover”, birthday breakfasts at Denny’s and cheap alcohol (it was college, give me a break). Shirley and I share a work history that evolved into a deep friendship and the birth of Dirty Girls. Our common language includes acronyms from the software industry, Trixie and Candy, Madge, Twinkie, lava cake and DGC. My IPEC soul sisters, Liz and Judi, know exactly what I mean when I pick up the phone and say, “I’m so level two right now. Damn gremlin. Help me – I think I’m making up a story here…” These strings of words that I associate with each soul sister has little meaning to you – or to the other soul sisters, even – but they encapsulate the intimate relationships I have with each.
The deepest bond between people comes from feeling understood. And language, communication, the sense that you’re understood comes from being heard. Having a common language is more than sharing a hobby or having a nice evening out. It creates a bond that says, “I know you. I get you. I accept you.”
Private jokes are a common language in families, between couples, between coworkers and of course, among friends. They remind us of why we are together in the first place, a perspective that we share and can appreciate. They remind us that we are not in our experience alone, but with a tribe of our own to support us, cheer us and ultimately, understand us.
So the next time you find yourself in that awkward “I guess you had to be there” scenario, be grateful. Somewhere out in the world is someone who knows exactly what you’re talking about. And they find it just as funny as you.
Natalie Hahn is a principal at Dirty Girls Consulting, offering programs that support women. Women work differently, think differently, and it is up to us to develop this difference into our strength. We explore breaking free of traditional standards, accomplishing professional and personal goals to create an authentic, fully loved life. Read more Dirty Girl Consulting blogs here.