You don’t want co-workers laughing at you, but sharing a laugh at the workplace can pave the way to success. Here’s how to strike a balance.Reaching the end of a job interview, the HR person asks a young applicant: “And what starting salary are you looking for?”
The applicant answers, “In the neighbourhood of one crore a year, depending on the benefits package.”
The interviewer says, “Well, what would you say to a package of five weeks paid vacation, full medical and dental insurance, and a company car leased every two years, say…a Range Rover Sport?”
The applicant sits up straight. “Wow! Are you kidding?’
Interviewer: “Yes, but you started it!”
Marco Sampietro, a professor at the SDA Bocconi School of Management (Italy) and at the Mumbai International School of Business (India) offers this example of workplace humour in the introduction for his new book Humour at the Workplace, published by Rupa. In the book, he outlines how it’s possible to use humour at work to ease stress, break the ice with new colleagues, promote camaraderie and even simply to make work more fun. Sampietro, who has authored and co-authored six books on management, has attempted to turn humour into a science, offering theories about what makes people laugh, explaining the many types and patterns of humour and even pointing out why and how what you think is funny can have disastrous results.
But can humour be learnt at all?
Sampietro believes so. “Well, in the book I skipped linguistic theories of humour that sometimes really try to find the secret formula of humour,” he says with a smile. “There are people that are able to plan humour. For example, comedians know what is funny and what it is not, what works and what does not work — they, essentially, leverage the theories of humour depicted in the book. It does not mean that they’ve studied these theories, more likely that they learnt them from experience and discovered successful patterns of humour.”
Humour is learnt, Sampietro says, “as many other skills, as part of our development process. But it’s really part of one’s personality and based on the way you interpret the world. If these variables do not change, your style of humour probably won’t either. What can be learnt, however, is to refrain from using humour types that can offend. And of course you can learn jokes, but the effectiveness of jokes depends on many factors such as your voice, body language and rhythm.”
A few points to keep in mind:
Humour and age
Sampietro cites several studies to demonstrate how humour changes through the different stages of one’s life. He writes: “Jennifer Stanley and some other researchers had 30 young adults, 22 middle-aged people, and 29 senior citizens watch a variety of different sitcom clips. The subjects rated how socially appropriate and funny they found each clip. Stanley also used facial electromyography to determine how much the clips caused their facial muscles to move to form a smile. What the authors found was that senior citizens were much less likely to be fans of the aggressive style of humour.”
Sampietro offers an example of aggressive humour:
Colleague 1 (to Colleague 3, while waiting for the elevator with Colleague 2): “The elevator is coming. Would you like to ride it?”
Colleague 3: “No thanks, the elevator already has a lot of work with you two.”
Jokes like that, he says, fall flat on an older audience. “The 64 to 84-year-olds found a specific clip about 23 percent less funny than the middle-aged people did, and about 19 percent less funny than the 17 to 21-year-olds did.” Young adults, he writes, preferred self-deprecating humour, while older participants favoured affiliative humour, “the kinds of jokes that bring people together through a funny or awkward situation.”
The gender divide
“Generally, men and women use different types of humour, and perceive humour in a slightly different way,” Sampietro tells us.
“Male humour is usually more aggressive and targeted against someone, while female humour is more conversational and less focused on specific people, especially if they are present.” To enhance workplace chemistry, Sampietro therefore recommends sticking to jokes that aren’t directed at anyone.
Sampietro offers the following example: One colleague notices another waiting for the elevator with a bunch of books and snacks in her hands. “Food for your thoughts?” he asks. “No,” she replies, “It’s a survival kit for the elevator.”
What gets India giggling?
Sampietro believes that humour is becoming freer and more adventurous in India. He’s dedicated an entire chapter to humour on the subcontinent, in fact. Explaining the reason behind this emphasis, he says, “I’ve been working in India since 2012. The idea of writing this book only occurred to me while there. I was interviewed by a newspaper and had mentioned how humour was an integral part of the skillset of a good project manager — that’s when I thought about it, hence the focus on India.”
Citing other studies, Sampietro reveals that Indians favour affiliative humour and seem to enjoy aggressive humour less. “Hurtful humour was disliked the most.” Local stand-up comic Tanmay Bhat, who came under fire for the “Sachin vs. Lata Civil War” video he posted on Snapchat in July last year would, likely, confirm this to be true.
Why do corporate leaders need humour?
“Humour is often associated with leadership, team effectiveness and leaders’ ability to elicit changes in subordinates,” writes Sampietro. “Several successful companies such as Ben and Jerry’s, Southwest Airlines and Sun credit higher degree of employment commitment, group work cohesiveness and their excellent performances to their leaders’ use of humour at the workplace.”
But Sampietro also says that using humour can be tricky when you hold a position of authority. For one thing, many leaders worry that using humour may diminish their authority or fear that being funny doesn’t align with their status. “On the other hand, if your leadership style is very focused on achieving goals and performing tasks, humour can still play a role, but the dosage is fundamental. If used too much, it might be perceived as not aligned with your directions.” To strike the right balance, he recommends practice, and choosing topics and styles of humour carefully.
The first step, of course, is to build a good sense of humour. Sampietro suggests: “Observe how humourous people behave, and how people react to your humour (what works and what doesn’t). Spend time with funny people, read humorous books and watch funny films. The more you are exposed to humour, the more you will incorporate it in daily life. However, do not expect to become a stand-up comic overnight. Evolution is possible, revolution much less.”
You think you’re funny?
Sampietro lists the following observations, based on studies and scientific evidence:
• People tend to consider jokes that emphasise aggressive content as less funny
• The idea that people who usually repress their sexual instincts or aggression, mostly like jokes that contain both these elements, is not supported
• The hypothesis that stimulating aggression of the sexual sphere causes a higher appreciation of jokes containing these elements, is also not supported
• Freud’s proposed model, which sees laughter as an outpouring of energy in surplus, does not appear to be consistent with the modern discoveries about the functioning of the nervous system.
Courtesy – First appeared in Mumbai mirror written by Anjana Vaswani