What kind of shared experience is best for bringing people together? Humor? Nope. Shared laughter actually comes in second. Number one: disaster! But, for all of the good that it sparks in others, we don’t want to engineer calamity just to inspire connections, so we can use laughter, the next best thing, to bring people together in a positive way.
Companies spend millions of dollars on team-building events. I’ve presented and occasionally participated at some. A few years ago, I presented at a retreat at a dude ranch and in the advance letter I was invited to take part in the activities. I was instructed to bring along my cowboy hat and boots and “clothing you don’t mind soiling”. So I put on my western gear and joined in. We rode horses along trails and ate steaks chuck-wagon style. It was all
Roy Rogers until we got to the rodeo arena, and then everything went Rawhide.
The area was covered with a loose mixture of sawdust and dirt and “organic” material and it reeked of livestock. We formed teams and entered the ring for the games. Some were kid’s games like tug-of-war, but then the leader asked for volunteers for something called “chute dogging” and no one responded. I reluctantly lifted my hand. I was the only volunteer, so he drafted a partner, a woman with salon nails and perfect hair. We were led into one end of the ring by a wide gate outside of which stood a large long-horned bovine chewing serenely. This animal was as high as my chest at his shoulder and although I’m no judge of livestock, I’d put his weight at about the equivalent of a city bus. The leader explained the goal. “We’re gonna drive this steer out the chute and y’all gonna ‘dog’ him.” He mimed wrapping his arms around horns and twisting an imaginary steer to the ground. I was speechless. Cow wrestling? I remembered the letter had instructed me to wear clothes that I wouldn’t mind soiling, but I didn’t know they meant from the inside. I’m a city boy. I know nothing about livestock and the one time I visited a farm I got chased by a duck.
I looked over at my partner and I could see that she had no intention of breaking a nail, so there was really no point in discussing strategy. I just spaced myself out a ways and nodded my head to release the beast. With a slap that raised a cloud of dust from his muscled backside, the steer bolted out of the gate and ran by my partner who squealed and–for some reason–slapped him again as he sped by. This additional giddy-up inspired the animal to a higher gear and as he charged by I wrapped my arms around the horns and got yanked off my feet so hard that one boot flew off. With a strength borne of pure terror, I hung on to the horns like Indiana Jones on that Nazi truck. Amazingly, my hat stayed on but the brim flapped up like Corporal Agarn. My lips skinned back from my clenched teeth and the whites of my eyes showed all around and—in the fierce wind produced by the speed of the panicked animal—dried out so that I couldn’t blink. Behind me I left stuttering tracks in the dirt from my remaining boot while my right sock fluttered like a flag of surrender.
Finally, physics overpowered adrenaline and my arms gave out and—still unable to close my eyes or lips—I plowed face down into the nitrogen-rich surface of the rodeo ring. I remember it took half an hour to floss the dirt out of my teeth. Later, after the longest shower of my life, the group met for dinner and karaoke. Around the tables, everyone recounted stumbles and comical pratfalls and yes, my short ride and subsequent face plant.
Was there was any real team-building from the tug-of-war or the chute-dogging? It doesn’t matter. The real connections formed later as we laughed at mutual embarrassments. Those comedic moments became the bond that took a collection of individuals and forged a unit bound by shared laughter.
Falling face-first into fertilizer may not qualify as disaster, but it’s the next best thing.