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The Humor Quotient Newsletter

Vol. 3, No. 1, April 1997, Winona, MN 55987


[Our last issue began a two-part discussion of Benjamin Franklin, humor, and negotiating success.  Specifically, we asked do 20th century results of a Legislative Simulation illuminate the relationship of humor to Franklin’s paramount success as a negotiator?]


Toward an American, Humorous Rhetoric:  Benjamin Franklin, Part 2


Throughout U.S. history, Benjamin Franklin has been the most consistently touted, whole-person model of the successful negotiator.  Whether convincing Quakers to support defense spending, businessmen to support the nascent University of Pennsylvania, or his most Christian Majesty’s government of France to support American rebels against the crown of Britain, Franklin seemed to triumph everywhere and to leave a perpetual guarantee for his negotiating style.  Moreover, he is the true character of the American Revolution, and his memory as a jocular personality separates him from all the other Founding Fathers.  In Part 1, we specified this personality as defined by seriousness, jocularity, good-humor, ability to accept kidding, originality, and helpfulness in getting things done.


Now the question is whether this personality profile, however strongly drawn in Franklin’s Almanac, Autobiography, and other writings, is in fact any sort of recommended formula for negotiation success.  There is little doubt that generations of Americans were educated to see it that way.  But results from recent experiments at Augsburg College and Winona State University, involving about 150 participants, suggest some complexity in the conclusions that can be drawn about the Franklin model.






At the outset, though, it must be admitted that all comparison of Franklin to a 20th century reality must be tentative at best.  It can certainly be objected that Franklin is at least a half-European figure and may not be any reasonable guide to current American realities.  It can also be argued that Franklin belongs to an era when the progress of women was still minor and that he cannot be much model for modern bi-gender negotiations.  These are serious objections which should at a minimum point out that negotiation principles are not immutable abstractions like the number four.  Times change, and negotiation probably to some extent changes with them.  The question is how much they change, and how much light the past can provide the present.


A  Doubtable Character Formula for Success


These objections having been recognized, what do Legislative Simulation results indicate about the Franklin personality model for the successful negotiator?  Most simply, for better than 90 female and 50 male participants in the LS, imitating Franklin hardly embodies a success formula for negotiation.  For men, a straight line regression of the seven Franklinesque characteristics is little more than randomly correlated to negotiation success.  For women, it is actually negatively correlated.


These are hardly surprising results given that the Franklin character is whimsical, jocular, and good humored, none of which has been emphasized in the study of negotiation through the ages.  In some ways, this defines the Franklin mystique.  Franklin approached negotiation from an unrecommended character, and his overwhelming success is thus often seen as like Shakespeare’s, the result of unanalyzable genius.

But before imitating Pope’s grudging resort to genius to account for Shakespeare, we might do well to consider again the composition  of the  Franklin formula.   What we have so far is


HQN Editor:  Paul Grawe, Department of English, Winona State University, Winona, MN 55987

Tel:  (507) 457-5443; email:  PGRAWE@VAX2.WINONA.MSUS.EDU






Franklin’s strong personal character as it comes down to us both in his  writings and in the estimation of previous generations.  Franklin himself, however, was not centrally known for recommending such humanistic character.    Instead, he advises and attributes his own success to persistence and attention to giving people good service.  The American language even today is studded with Franklin’s aphorisms of anti-slothful persistence, particularly as he summarized it in The Way to Wealth (1758):  “Early to bed and early to rise, makes a Man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”  “There are no Gains, without Pains.”  “Have you somewhat to do To-morrow, do it To-day.”


This trait which Franklin emphasized above all else can be called diligence, single-mindedness, keeping the eye on the ball, on-taskness.  But Franklin preferred “persistence.”  The Legislative Simulation allows us to add persistence as itself equal to all the personal characteristics of Franklin combined.  And when we take this composite and correlate it to level of negotiation success, the full formula is considerably more convincing.  For men, the new formula attains 94% confidence of relationship to negotiating success.  For women, the correlation, which was negative without persistence, becomes positive and is actually better than 95% confident of a relationship to negotiating success.


A Second Emendation


Moreover, we can make a second emendation to the Franklin formula based not on character or persistence but on his objective status.  Since Franklin was addicted to self-effacement, we may have to reconsider Franklin minus a self-effacement that became ultimately a self-concealment.


Specifically, Franklin could have claimed much for himself objectively as a scientist.  After all, he had, on the verge of the American wilderness, been the first man to harness the titanic forces of current electricity.  Priestly and the other European greats of science would have given him most of what he might have demanded as a scientific genius.  Franklin, however, presented himself somewhat as the backwoodsman and little as the natural philosopher and pre-eminent scientist.


In short, Franklin was probably taken for more than he advertised.  And probably he was most strongly taken as a man of fact.  Electricity was a world-shaking fact. Representing American colonists to France was based in the clear fact that the American Revolution was France’s best chance to avoid being eclipsed by England.






Harnessing it with lightening rods was a fact.  The need for military expenditures, even in a Quaker community, was ultimately a matter of the facts of the frontier.  And Revisiting the Franklin formula, then, let us add a third element, fact, to character and persistence.  Weighting each of the three equally, the evidence of the Legislative Simulation is that this formula is correlated to negotiating success for men (95% confident) and for women (97% confident.)


In Summary


Franklin’s unparalleled position as a successful American negotiator can not be directly correlated to his equally famous character with its central jocularity and good humor.  However, joining these traits as Franklin did to classic rhetorical traits of emphasizing facts and negotiating persistently can be argued to define a credible—though not a superlative—American negotiating pattern even today.


Moreover, this pattern is successful for women as well as men, recommending a Franklinesque stance particularly in a bi-gender modern negotiations environment.  (Even more tentatively, this may suggest rethinking Franklin’s as a “mothering” rather than a “fathering” role for his fellow revolutionists.)


It should be noted as well that Franklin’s personal life was quite devoid of his spectacular public successes in negotiation.  Franklin records his less-than-successful relationships with his father, brother, and wife in his autobiography, accepting repeated blame for inadequacies in what could be broadly termed personal negotiations.  The Autobiography itself was originally written as a private peace offering to his estranged son—a negotiation which the Autobiography does not illuminate.  Perhaps Franklin forgot the importance of blending character, persistence, and fact in these contexts.


Most importantly, however, Franklin’s public negotiation success shows that a man can be jocular and good humored and still succeed in negotiation.  The key is not so much unanalyzable genius as a proper admixture of classic negotiation elements to achieve a positive negotiation stance with humor.


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See you at the International Society for Humor Studies Conference, Edmond, Oklahoma, July 8-13, 1997.






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