I was elated to read the blurb that lead to an article in the July-August 2020 issue of Harvard Business Review which validated my sustained work on talking about business humor.
“One good laugh—or better still, a workplace that encourages levity—builds cohesion.”
In a well researched article titled, ‘Sarcasm, Self-Deprecation, and Inside Jokes: A User’s Guide to Humor at Work’, authors Brad Bitterly and Alison Wood Brooks deal with different dimensions of humor at work. I’ve already written about ‘The Levity Effect’ being my inspiration to talk about corporate humor. Now, the HBR article is a weighty addition to my arsenal on workplace humor.
The first statement that caught my attention was, ‘Humor and laughter are intricately tied to status and power’. In my humor sessions for corporates, junior level executives often challenge me to say humor is a privilege of the titled managers. And when they used the same joke that their boss used, the response was tepid. And I was reminded of this quip, “When a celebrity sounds boring, the audience thinks it’s their fault.”. I use this quip as a speech opener, especially after a highly flattering introduction and say, “so if you don’t laugh at my jokes, the problem is with YOU.”
Another insight that the HBR study provides, “We also found that people who violate expectations and norms in a socially appropriate way are seen as more competent and more intelligent. This finding confirms our feelings about funny conversationalists: We admire and respect their wit, which raises their prestige.”
The article goes on to give tips on when to use inside jokes, when to use sarcasm and when to use self-deprecating humor.
I get a barrage of questions on self-deprecating humor in my sessions and I urge my audience to use it a safe-bet humor but not to overdo it for fear of being dismissed as flippant conversationalists. And the HBR article fully endorses the view in this observation, “You should also avoid using humor to reveal your failures in situations where levity would be seen as inappropriate (such as if you are testifying in court) or when the failure is perceived as so serious that joking about it would be in poor taste.”
In a capsule titled, ‘When Humor Works and When It Doesn’t’, I found this tip on managing difficult interactions very useful. “Use humor to dodge difficult questions when you’re confident the audience will view your response as funny and you have a more serious answer if you’re pressed on the question. I remember an incident involving the former chief minister of Tamilnadu, Mr M Karunanidhi who faced a vocal opposition member badgering him to grant more funds for his constituency. In a masterly wordplay of his name,KARUNANIDHI, he replied , “ don’t you know there is more karunai (kindness) in my name than nidhi ( wealth).” This quick-witted reply tamed the otherwise ferocious legislator and he too joined the laughter. And when the member persisted, the CM reeled out budget figures to clarify where the government’s priorities were.
Avoid humor to dodge difficult questions when you don’t have a sense of the audience and you’re not highly confident the joke will land. Those who follow the news channels must have watched senior officials and bureaucrats making asses of themselves while answering probing questions on the Covid crisis.
During a meeting of all employees of a small IT company, the CEO grandly declared that he was open to taking ANY kind of questions from the floor. A rather obese entry level executive believed him and got up to ask why the office canteen served unpalatable food. The CEO rebuked him with what he thought was a humorous reply, ‘so my friend, you seem to be thinking only about food than work and your size shows!.” He expected widespread laughter but was met with sepulchral silence and the CEO lost his credibility with that remark and NO ONE rose to ask any more questions.
I found many other nuggets in their concluding paragraphs and here are three.
1. “Humor at work is a delicate dance, and humor research is still in its infancy.”
2. “But any rules of thumb for using humor have to include a caveat: Context matters. Conversational dynamics can vary profoundly from culture to culture, person to person, and group to group.”
3. “If you don’t think you can land jokes at work, or you’re too nervous to try, that’s OK. Not everyone is meant to be funny, just as not every attempt at humor will be successful…… But you can still incorporate levity into your work life by doing something simple: appreciating other people’s humor. Be quick to laugh and smile.”
I am now fortified with yet another credible source to amplify my talks on workplace humor. Do read the entire article for many more tips.
So be quick to laugh and smile!🤪😃😀