How Not To Use Humor At Work
Humor is humanity's best tool for coping with stressful, scary, and incredibly boring situations. So of course it's an important part of any corporate board room discussion. Bad news then for the American women who occupy 13 percent of seats at the table: You might think you're funny, but you're not.
According to an analysis of 600,000 words, spoken at board meetings at seven top U.K. companies over 18 months, 90 percent of zingers said by men received a positive response, while 80 percent of jokes made by women received crickets chirping, and a lone tumbleweed rolling past the Starbucks cups.
This is likely related to the kind of humor preferred by male and female board members. Eighty percent of the time, the men went for witty, bantery remarks, according to the study by Judith Baxter, the head of English at Aston University, and reported by The Guardian. Women, on the other hand, made fun of themselves in 70 percent of the cases.
These different styles of humor can be seen outside the office too. Comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy and Mitch Hedberg have more of a "the world is absurd" brand of funny, while their female counterparts, like Tina Fey, Sarah Silverman and Rosie O'Donnell, take more of an "I'm absurd" approach.
The standup comedy stage, like the board room, is traditionally a male domain. "Humor is largely aggressive and pre-emptive," screenwriter Nora Ephron once said, "and what's more male than that?"
So it makes sense that women in the boardroom would avoid the dominant, at-someone-else's-expense laugh, and instead turn themselves into the punchline.
Humor "is part of leadership 'tribe' behavior which women find hard to join," said Baxter. "When women managers use humor it can misfire. This is partly because it is less culturally acceptable for women to use humor and partly because traditionally women haven't been part of the leadership tribe."
It might also be because some of this boardroom humor is demeaning to women. At Safeway's annual meeting earlier this month, the company's Senior Vice President and General Counsel Bob Gordon told a joke about a secret service agent greeting the president as he disembarked from Helicopter One, clutching two pigs.
"These are not ordinary pigs, these are genuine Arkansas razorback hogs," the president said. "I got one for former Speaker Nancy Pelosi and one for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton."
"Excellent trade, sir," the agent replied.
The poor reception of female humor also has some unfunny consequences. Men are three times more likely to use jokes to boost the mood, the study found, probably because their jokes aren't usually greeted with awkward silence. People like people who are funny, and likability is one of the greatest hurdles women face in getting into the board room in the first place.
"Success and likability are positively correlated for men and negatively correlated for women," Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said in an interview. "A woman, if you're most intelligent or most likely to succeed, that's an embarrassing thing or something that's not considered attractive, and I think that's what we need to change."
Women may in fact use self-deprecating humor as a way to deflate their success and be more likable. But then they just seem unfunny and unlikable. Sometimes smashing through the glass ceiling, it seems, is more like walking through the looking glass, where chess pieces can talk and there's no way to win.
5 tips for successfully using humor in the workplace:
1. Don't be racist. Or sexist. Or homophobic. Or religiously insensitive. If being gay or a sexy lady or a black dude or a priest is an essential part of the joke, you probably shouldn't tell the joke.
2. If you ever have to say, "It was just a joke" after the joke, you probably should never have told the joke.
3. Make fun of yourself. But if you follow it by panicked, nervous laughter, it'll probably just make people feel awkward.
4. Don't make a joke about a co-worker's body part. Ever.
5. If your joke bombs, don't repeat the joke, or try to explain it for 60 seconds, or say "You're a tough crowd," and start sweating. Just make fun of yourself for being an idiot.
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Claire Gordon has contributed to Slate's DoubleX, the Huffington Post, and the book Prisons: Current Controversies. While an undergraduate at Yale University and a research fellow at Yale graduate school, she spoke on panels at Yale and Cornell, and reported from Cairo, Tokyo, and Berlin.
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