How to be funny—not offensive—at work5 min read . Updated: 22 Feb 2021, 02:11 PM IST
- Having a sense of humor can defuse tension and build camaraderie among co-workers. But when jokes go too far, they can alienate, anger and offend your colleagues.
Should you be funny at work?
Nail it, and humor can bond teams, boost your career and make even the most boring and stressful jobs bearable. Miss, and you can face awkward silence on Zoom, offended colleagues—or even worse, public ridicule on social media.
“Best-case scenario, they promise never to go on Twitter again," management professor Brad Bitterly says of those who broadcast bad jokes out to the world. “Worst-case scenario, they also lose their job and are publicly shamed."
OK, so that’s not great. Plus, if comedy is tragedy plus time, what are we supposed to do amid a deeply unfunny public health crisis and exceedingly serious national conversation around politics and race? At a moment when so many of us could use a laugh, we’re all terrified of stumbling.
Mercifully, it’s not that hard to get right, those who study humor told me.
“Just don’t make fun of anyone’s basic identity or background," says Jennifer Aaker, a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and co-author of the book, “Humor, Seriously." “The jokes that are rooted in these things aren’t any more necessary to society than smoking in an airplane on a cross-country trip."
Ask yourself: If you remove the funny part of what you’re about to share, is it still appropriate to discuss now, with this audience? If yes, go ahead, Dr. Aaker says. If you find yourself frequently offering up explanations like, “It’s just a joke," essentially using humor as an excuse, rethink what you’re sharing.
Before weaving jokes about employees’ dogs or drinking habits into company PowerPoint presentations, entrepreneur James Segil checks with them to make sure they’re comfortable with the exposure.
“The point of the humor is to bring us together, not just to make anyone laugh," says Mr. Segil, the 49-year-old president of Los Angeles security-technology firm Openpath. He views the company’s collective sense of humor—from a silly group karaoke of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody" to a marshmallow-eating contest that had everyone cracking up—as a differentiator.
“It is something that people are scared of and most people don’t do," he says. “There’s an appreciation and certain leniency that most people have because you try."
If a joke doesn’t land—but it doesn’t offend anyone—employees forgive you, he’s found.
Of course, the ideal is to pull off a punchline that’s both appropriate and hilarious. Do that, and people will see you as more confident, competent and intelligent, according to research from Dr. Bitterly, an assistant professor of management at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. In one of his experiments, having someone tell a good joke made them significantly more likely to be selected as the group leader, an indication that we bestow funny people with higher status.
In another research scenario, participants evaluated a character who was channeling the worst of Michael Scott, the boorish boss from the television show “The Office," during a job interview. They weren’t impressed.
“You don’t think, ‘Wow, that person’s really witty,’ " Dr. Bitterly says. “You think, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t believe that person really said that.’ "
Dhaya Lakshminarayanan, now an independent strategy consultant and comedian in San Francisco, used jokes to call out sexist language and push back against overly flirty bosses during her years at finance and consulting firms, she says. Once, at a mostly male conference, a man from a group Ms. Lakshminarayanan was chatting with announced that all the “gentlemen" were going to make their way to a private dining room for a sushi dinner. Ms. Lakshminarayanan stood up and jokingly announced that she and a female colleague would just stay put and eat leftovers from their bag lunches. Everyone laughed, and the man apologized.
“It’s destabilizing," she says of the impact of a well-timed joke. Humor can defuse inappropriate behavior, she’s found, leaving folks laughing and disarmed.
Humor helped her build relationships in an industry where she often felt out of place as a petite Indian woman, she says. She didn’t have the alcohol tolerance to split a pitcher of beer at the bar after work, and she hadn’t watched last night’s football game—but she could do a killer impression of the boss behind a closed office door.
“It allowed me to establish rapport with my colleagues in a way that I felt like I couldn’t do any other way," she says.
Still, even the best comedians among us can find themselves lost in the current reality of video calls and masked interactions. It’s hard to deploy quips, puns and pranks with the same ease when you’re dealing with a two-second time delay and can’t read the energy of the room.
“There are definitely times when I’m like, ‘Wow, that wasn’t funny,’ " says Linda Chu, a New York City event marketer who’s had some of her jokes get lost in digital translation. “You’re just like, ‘How do I become invisible?’ "
She’s taken to reaching for props, like a stuffed plush cat she got in Tokyo, to try to lighten the mood of video meetings. Sometimes she feels like a clown.
“I have these moments where I’m like, ‘Man, maybe I should chill out a little,’ " she says. But then she remembers how colleagues and clients know her for her gregarious personality, and how she gets a rush each time she makes them laugh.
“I truly believe the reason I am personally successful," she says, “is because of that part of me."
Safe for Work
How to nail the punchline, and keep it appropriate for colleagues
Test your jokes. Run them by trusted friends or co-workers to see if they’re actually funny or instead prone to unintended interpretation.
Be careful with self-deprecation. It works well if you’re the boss, demonstrating that you don’t take yourself too seriously, says executive coach and “Humor, Seriously" co-author Naomi Bagdonas. But lower-status workers risk undermining themselves if they’re constantly poking fun at their abilities.
Seek mutual amusement: Sign off an email by referring to a moment of shared laughter. For example, if you were just commiserating over the joys of parenting during a pandemic, you might say, “Excuse me while I go remove a dog toy from my child’s mouth."
Don’t punch down. Don’t take aim at people below you in the office hierarchy.
Don’t be too dark or too harsh. Everyone’s feeling vulnerable these days, says Dani Klein Modisett, the founder of Laughter on Call, which does comedy workshops with companies. “The kind of court jester right now is to be sensitive."
This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.