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Did I Hit Your Funny Bone?

How to use humor (the right way) in the workplace

humor at officeSo what is humor? Dictionary.com says it’s “the faculty of perceiving what is amusing or comical,” and “an instance of being or attempting to be comical or amusing.” Both these definitions are true, but humor in the workplace is tricky because what one person finds amusing, another might find offensive, and the office is no place to hone your act.

If you are a person who sees the funny side of life and uses it in your communication skill-set, take some time to observe humor in your office before jumping in with jokes. According to Caroline Ceniza-Levine, career expert with Six Figure Start, most office cultures range between people constantly joking around and playing pranks to an office where no one jokes around. If you don’t have a “read” on your office, Ceniza-Levine suggests that you “err on the side of caution and forego the humor.” Not sure whether a joke is in good taste, Ceniza-Levine says that your uncertainty is a red-flag warning for you not to use that type of humor.

If you feel uncomfortable using humor, Darcy Eikenberg, executive coach and speaker, has three tips: “First, you don’t have to be funny to have a sense of humor. You’re not trying to be a professional comedian. Second, be more interest-ed than interest-ing. People gravitate to those who are interested in them, and it works a lot better than repeating last night’s TV monologue. Third, just smile. Unless you’re a pro at timing and delivery, resist the urge to say something inappropriate and just smile.”

Humor Barometers

Laughter can definitely bring relief into a stressful workday—if you’re aware of your audience and their reaction. Kelly Walsh, president of 1 Smart Life, says to tune in with all of your audience—even those sitting in nearby cubicles. Walsh says, “If they aren’t warming up to your humor, you will see it on their faces or note it in their silence.” Be especially careful if you are the boss, she says, because employees may feel they have to laugh even if they find the humor offensive. Walsh shares a tip: if you have to say, “I was only kidding,” you probably shouldn’t have said it.

If you want to avoid alienating co-workers, Leigh Steere, cofounder, Managing People Better, recommends avoiding humor that includes: sarcasm and jokes that are at a person’s or your company’s expense; remarks that could be construed as put-downs to a particular group; political jokes; and anything off-color.

Izzy Gesell, speaker, author and facilitator, has another tip: “Are people laughing at what was said?” Gesell notes “good taste” is difficult to measure and is changing constantly “depending on people’s personal values and the context of the humor.” He adds that men and women tend to have different senses of humor.

Your intention for telling a joke can help you decide whether to keep a joke to yourself. Lisa Bahar, marriage and family therapist, says to check in with yourself. Are you angry and trying to cut someone down? Are you jealous or envious and using your humor in an aggressive way? Another way to discover your intention is to reflect on how you feel after the remark or comment. Did you feel anger, or did you feel funny and lighthearted with a sense of healing and encouragement?

It’s easy to alienate people, says Walsh, with jokes about any sex topic, race, gender, sexual orientation, age, disability, and religion. She adds that “Criticizing a political party is a big offender in this much divided country along with stereotypes that impact people around you.” Ceniza-Levine says the best humor should lighten the mood—not bring people down — and is typically based on something we all can relate to.

Email and Texts

When we talk, others “hear” so much more than our words. Our facial expressions, tone of voice, body movements, and intuition are all part of communicating. When you write an email or text, all but the words are stripped away. Words convey only a fraction of what we are trying to say. Since delivery and style are a huge part of humor, the person reading the text or email has a lot of gaps to fill to figure out what and how you are expressing your humor. Walsh says that if you are sending humor in writing, “The caution here would be that it never goes away, so realize that making a bad decision about telling or even forwarding an offensive joke can be traced back to you and you could have some ’splainin’ to do.”

Steere agrees that humor is best in person, pointing out that in person, “You can do damage control on the spot.” She also says that the use of emoticons (such as a winking smiley face) can help to indicate that you are attempting humor, and, oops, suppose you accidentally send it to the CEO instead of your intended recipient. Steere says if you’re not comfortable with that, it’s probably best NOT to send it at all.”

Ceniza-Levine believes that humor in email and texts should be avoided at all costs. She suggests that if you feel you must use humor in a particular situation, write it out, save it, and come back to it later with fresh eyes. Chances are that you will make changes or decide not to send it at all. Gessell succinctly says, “When in doubt, leave it out, or make it evident that it is a humorous statement.”

When Humor Becomes Bullying

When it comes to harassment and bullying, Gesell says these situations are not one-time events. If the jokester doesn’t stop after being asked to stop, it then becomes harassment or bullying. He says, “When humor is used to ‘put him down,’ or ‘stick it to her,’ or ‘leave them speechless,’ it is used as a weapon.”

Ceniza-Levine concurs also saying not to make jokes at anyone’s expense: She asks you to consider whether you can make the same jokes to a child, to your grandmother? “That’s the level of sensitivity you should take in the workplace because you don’t know how other people feel.” Ceniza-Levine also says that self-deprecating humor in the office is not a good idea: “You might think it shows humility, but it really shows lack of self-confidence and self-respect.”

Handling Offensive Humor

If you are the victim of unwanted or offensive humor, Eikenberg, has some suggestions.

  • If it’s an isolated incident, it’s often best to just ignore it and move on. We can all stick our foot in our mouths at times, and offense can often be in the eyes of the receiver, not the speaker. If the remark is minor and uncharacteristic for that person, give them the benefit of the doubt that they probably just made a mistake–and will be thankful you’re not making a big deal about it.
  • If it’s happening frequently, or the comment is extreme, then you can’t stay silent, because silence = acceptance. If you’re in a group, you can certainly say, ‘That was an inappropriate comment,’ and then remove yourself from the situation. If you can’t leave, consider taking the person aside later and share your observation. But make it about you, not about them. For example, “When you said X, I felt Y. I don’t believe you intended to offend me and others there, but I just wanted you to know that’s how it came out.”

Last Laugh

With all the tips noted above, you may find yourself timid about any humor in the workplace, but humor at the workplace, as in life, has a very important role. It can lighten your load, help you to see the upside of a grim situation, and gosh, what’s better than a good belly laugh? As Walsh says, happy employees translate into better customer service and happier customers.

About Claudia Reynolds, MA

Claudia Reynolds, M.A., has a background in media and creative ventures having spent eleven years as a television weather anchor and, nearly simultaneously, fifteen years as a singer. Public speaking, writing, and thinking outside the box are Claudia’s strong suits, and her entrepreneurial nature has brought her experience with branding, marketing, and trademarks. She has operated her own small business and works as a freelance writer, video producer, and researcher.


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