Despite the stereotype of the obnoxiously publicized relationship, I find that there are often more single people joking about their singleness on Valentine’s day than there are actual couples posting sickeningly cute selfies. Perhaps it’s just because I have more single friends than taken friends (which would probably say something deep about my subconscious if it were true, though I’m not entirely sure what that would be). It seems more likely to me, though, that singleness is one of those things that is an acceptable target for self deprecation.

Weight, grades, depression, exhaustion–we’ve all heard people talk about these problems in a way that invites laughter at their expense. A lot of the time, these make for hilarious jokes: “us2 qna mmtay” is an old meme that still gets me every time I see it. But why are these jokes funny? An alien with no appreciation for human humor would find most of these jokes pretty alarming. People admit to knowingly eating more than is healthy for them, express that they want to die, and flaunt their loneliness on Valentine’s day. Like removing the laugh track from a comedy show, taking self-deprecating jokes out of the context of humor makes them look more disturbing, and definitely a lot more problematic.

Our theoretical alien might notice that the people who make these jokes invariably actually are suffering in one way or another because of the problems they make fun of. No couples are making “single on Valentine’s” jokes. But these jokes aren’t communicated as cries for help, and are definitely not taken as such. The words “I’m so lonely, please help” in the context of a joke about being single are received very differently than in any other context. To the alien, these jokes would just look like humans deriving perverse pleasure from another person expressing their pain.

The thing about humor that our alien doesn’t understand, of course, is that it is built upon exaggeration. Making jokes, like telling stories, is inherently deceitful. So when we place our suffering in the context of a joke, people expect us to be exaggerating. We are saying, in effect, “it isn’t actually that bad, don’t worry about me.” The problem and the danger lie in the fact that sometimes people aren’t exaggerating, even if they say they are. Maybe your friend joking about desperately trying to find a date before Valentine’s really does feel like nobody loves them. We’ve just made it so hard for people to honestly express vulnerability, even to their friends, that often these jokes are the only way for us to say how we really feel.

Even comedians, who tend to know a thing or two about humor, are starting to question the use of these jokes. Hannah Gadsby, in her brilliant show Nanette, said that she would refuse to make herself the butt of her own jokes, because self-deprecating humor takes on a poisonous quality when the things you joke about are true, especially when society already thinks less of you. She says that when a man puts himself down, people laugh because it’s funny to think about people with privilege failing for once. But when a woman puts herself down, people laugh because she’s finally realized where she belongs: at the bottom.

This Valentine’s, remember that it’s okay to feel lonely. It’s okay to feel left out. Those feelings can be oppressive and terrible and it can feel like laughing at them is the only way to rob them of their power. Indeed, jokes can be a powerful, effective way to cope. But the moment jokes become a way for you to deny that you really are feeling sadness and loneliness is the moment they stop being helpful and start being self destructive.

Happy Valentine’s, and to all our readers, I love you!

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