U.S. President Barack Obama meets with Russian President Vladimir Putin during the G8 Summit in Northern Ireland on June 17, 2013. (Reuters/Kevin Lamarque) 

Vladimir Putin and Barack Obama were sitting a frosty six feet from each other when, at the end of their tense news conference at the G8 summit on Monday, Obama tried a little levity.

“We compared notes on President Putin’s expertise in judo and my declining skills in basketball,” he said, “and we both agreed that as you get older it takes more time to recover.” But rather than play along, Putin kept a straight face, saying, “The president wants to relax me with his statement of age.”

Well, that was awkward. But Putin’s statement was actually one of the more honest things a world leader has ever said at a major photo op, where light banter and bonhomie are as obligatory as mumbling about “frank discussions.” Unintentionally perhaps, Putin had just deconstructed a tactic basic to all public relations: if you want to sell people something, first disarm their defenses.

Of course Obama wanted to relax Putin with his statements, on age or anything else. Obama, like most politicians, tries to disarm and charm his audiences all the time; his specialty is the self-depreciating joke. (How many times has he told us he’s under Michelle’s thumb?)

But, spymaster that he is, Putin saw through all that and called the technique a technique. He blurted out that the emperor wears PR. And, as one emperor facing down another, Putin wasn’t going to barter for power with self-depreciating jokes, any more than he was going to cave on arming Assad or imprisoning Pussy Riot.

Exceptions like Dick Cheney aside, most politicians find the banal joke, or any form of comic relief, extremely useful. So do corporate execs, TV anchors, advertisers, teachers, cops and writers, including me—at times everyone tries to relax other people with light, quasi-entertaining BS; it keeps society running and smoothes over friction. Forced social laughter, smiley face emoticons, movie characters who crack wise while hanging by a thread over a vat of boiling oil—half of communication, it seems, is trying to relax us with humor, verbal or physical.

It’s an animal thing—a dog cowering before the alpha dog wants to relax him with his stance. As social animals, we’ve created infinite ways to say, “I won’t hurt you, so please don’t hurt me.” As Obama tried with Putin.

By pointing out that Obama was doing just that, Putin not only broke O’s mojo, he broke the unspoken taboo that warns against stripping away this social nicety. (This whole episode, in fact, reminds me of Putin stripping off his shirt to reveal his pecs, as if he wants to make people tense with his statements of prowess.)

Obviously, relaxing people can be used for good (to negotiate in good faith, for instance) and for bad (to sell lies).

I must say, I enjoyed Putin’s semiotics lesson. But would it really be so bad, Vlad, if you occasionally relaxed the world with a joke or two? And maybe relaxed that strongman grip of yours, too?

James Harkin chronicles the battle for Aleppo from behind rebel lines.