Funny or Not So Much? Getting a Handle on Humor in Your Workplace

by Jean Marie Johnson

Good Humor Lightens the Load

Who doesn't love a good laugh? We all do when the source of that laughter is well-intentioned, well-timed and yes, downright funny humor.

And laughter loves us. As a stress management tool, letting out a good, hearty laugh reduces our level of stress hormones and bolsters our immune system. It exercises our diaphragm and provides a great workout for our heart.  We can almost feel these effects when we laugh so hard that our belly hurts. As a young child might say, Can we do that again?  Indeed.

Besides its positive physical effects, laughter does even more for our overall sense of well-being.  It helps us to shift our focus from the emotions that drain us-- such as anger and guilt.  Humor, and the laughter it engenders, allows us to adopt a more light-hearted, hopeful perspective about the things that we fear and those that weigh us down.

Bad Humor: That Wasn't Funny

At the same time, most of us are painfully-aware that not everything that is ostensibly "funny" can be classified as "good humor." At one time or another, we've personally felt the sting of an  off-hand comment flung in our direction or one aimed right at us. It probably caught us by surprise and made us wonder if the person behind the remark was trying to be funny, or had a more sinister intent.

Comments that don't feel quite right have a way of staying with us, and they make us much more cautious and guarded in our interactions with co-workers. Psychologist Dr. Joni Johnston regards comments such as these as negative humor that either excludes or offends others. As if that weren't enough cause for pause, she points to research that suggests that:

  •  "Our bodies are as sensitive as our feelings; we physiologically respond to hurtful remarks as if our bodies were under attack."
So much for being funny; bad humor is serious business, with serious consequences.

There is, of course, even more to consider: companies can be held liable for turning a blind eye to what may be deemed a hostile work environment. Despite a growing body of anti-harassment legislation, Marshall University Professor Christopher LeGrow, cites a study in which 70% of people reported they'd heard jokes that exclude or offend by sniping at a person's age, sexual orientation or weight. In fact, a full 40% admitted to making such jokes themselves. 

Other "popular" subjects of bad humor include a person's accent, hygiene, work habits or relationship with the boss. That's hardly an endorsement for a positive 21st century workplace. And that's why we need to take control by taking a closer look at the humor that ails us.

The Sting of Sarcasm

While cheap shots are sometimes blatant and unmistakable, sarcastic comments may be even more pervasive. These attempts at humor are often mocking, and their regrettable distinction is that they are usually intended to wound, as well as to amuse.  Consider the following example:

  • Todd: "I benched 250 last night!"
  • Craig: "Well, I guess I'll just have to call you Superman. Hey, Superman, do you think you can get that report done?"
Funny?  Well, on the most simplistic level, a visual image of that comic book hero might conjure up some amusement...those tights, that screaming S.  Fair enough. But if you're Todd and benching 250 is a personal milestone for you, that very same comment may feel like an intentional putdown: Was he just trying to be funny? And what's up with the report? Does Craig have an issue with me working on it…otherwise, why would he bring it up out of the blue like that?

Now, you may be thinking, Oh come on…lighten up. Didn't you just say that a good laugh is good for us? Yes, I did, but not at the expense of another person, and not when your "comment" is really a moment of nastiness on your part.  If you have developed a habit of slinging sarcasm while proclaiming that you "didn't mean anything by it," please think again.  Sarcasm feels bad on the receiving end.  It also looks pretty bad…on you.

Is There More to It?

Most of us whole-heartedly appreciate flashes of irony or wit that remark on the human condition. But sarcasm is mean-spirited, often acting as a cover for personal needs or frustrations that have gone underground.

Consider Craig, who made the Superman reference. If he's willing to "go there," he may realize that he's sarcastic because:

  • He needs to get the upper hand with people so that he can feel better about himself; his sarcasm is a defense mechanism that has become second-nature to him.
  • He feels under-appreciated by Todd and is taking it out on him.
  • He has a legitimate concern about Todd's contribution to a project they are both working on and he doesn't know how to address it openly with him.
Pick your poison; it's anyone's guess. Craig needs to understand what's at the root of his sarcastic responses to Todd.  Once he does, he can begin to take some positive action that results in effective communication and good humor.  

A Culture of Sarcasm

Sarcasm, alas, goes beyond isolated individuals. As leadership consultant Cynthia Clay notes,

  • "Work teams often develop sarcastic banter as a way of relating to one another. Sometimes one or two people take the brunt of these jokes. But …sarcasm destroys relationships and reduces productivity over time. The repeated victims of sarcasm may suffer in silence rather than speak up and be attacked again. As motivation and morale is eroded, the ability of the team to collaborate deteriorates."
In workplaces where sarcasm reigns supreme, you can quickly sense that people are on edge. Employees resort to adopting an offensive or defensive position in relation to humor that isn't funny, that really operates as one-upsmanship. It's tragic. But whether you are on the giving or the receiving end of this decidedly bad humor, you can take control.

Three Skills for Stopping Sarcasm in its Tracks

Cynthia Clay offers these sound suggestions for banishing your bad humor to the trash bin, where it belongs:

  • 1.  When a snappy, sarcastic comment forms in your brain, practice the discipline of leaving it right there. Then, let it pass.
  • 2.  Notice when your "humor" has a target. Learn to make people laugh by cultivating humor that doesn't require a victim and diminishes no one.
  • 3.  Learn to recognize when something is bugging you. Get clear about it. Then, learn to make a direct observation about your concern, and ask for an open discussion. Awkwardness is a small price to pay for earning someone's respect and collaboration.
For example, Craig might have thought about Superman, then paused. He might have simply said "Cool!" He might have paused again, collected his thoughts, and added: "Hey, Todd, let me know when you have a minute to talk about that CO2 project. I'm a little concerned about the timeline."

Five Ways to Cultivate A Culture of Good Humor

Put downs, zingers, dings and gotchas have no place in the context of MAGIC®. Here are five things you can do to create a "good humor" culture:

1.  Accept Personal Accountability
Remind yourself that how you use humor is a choice. In the spirit of The MAGIC Standard, every moment of humor can be so appropriate that your coworker wants to have another laugh with you. Okay, so that sounds a little corny, but the intention is pure. Give it a try: hold yourself accountable by asking yourself if your joke is in good humor, or not.  

2.  Keep Smiling
Elizabeth Scott, M.S., reinforces the fact that smiling is its own reward.  Because it helps to release endorphins, it "can lead you to actually feeling more happy (rather than just looking more happy). If you are able to put a smile on your face, the laughter will come more easily, and the stress will melt more readily." I've been practicing this for a while, especially during life's rough spots.  For me, it works.

3.  Seek out the Positive
It's always there. But you may have to look a bit. Tooling down the highway one afternoon, the pickup truck ahead of me slowed to a near stop, then made an arc to the left. As I proceeded cautiously, I felt the pure exhilaration of watching a mama duck cross the road with eight(!) tiny ducklings waddling in lockstep behind her. Yes, I have been talking about it ever since because I can't stop smiling –and laughing to myself–whenever that beautiful, silly, iconic image comes to mind.

4.  Reframe Your Rants
Many psychologists recommend reframing, or thinking differently about the things that are out of our control, the ones that bug us. Some specifically suggest that we see the humor in them. Now, this may take some serious "reframing" if your tendency is to fume. I've learned to shrug my shoulders and marvel at the fact that 9 out of 10 ten times, I will end up in the loooooongest line at the checkout. Regardless of my line-hopping, it's futile; I do it anyway.  And I end up thinking, ironically, How funny is this!

5.  Develop a Radar for Good Humor
Share jokes and spontaneous joy that provide you with an opportunity to laugh with others not at them. I walked into a Dunkin' Donuts the other day while en route to an appointment that weighed heavily on me. The server behind the counter was doing this joyful little dance that caught my eye and moved my soul, just when I really needed it. Because somewhere along the way I stopped worrying about looking the fool, I spontaneously joined in, from my side of the counter. We both laughed hysterically. Dancing In DD on a Thursday afternoon, are you serious?  Why not?

Good humor is available to all of us if we look for it and seek to create it. Remember that laughter is good for you. It Iowers your stress and improves your outlook. And when we share good humor with the people around us, laughter does even more: it connects us, like MAGIC.

Jean Marie Johnson is a Communico facilitator and has helped clients with their MAGIC initiatives. And for 20 years she has specialized in cultivating the customer experience as a key competitive advantage.
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