Workplace Humor’s Light and Dark Sides

Meet My Friend Humor!

Humor is my friend. Wow, humor strives to be everybody’s friend. Its singular fuel heals hearts and eases troubles. Simply recognizing something’s “funniness” signals activation of our brain’s creative side. Who knew?

Humor holds great power. It influences which shows we watch, who we date, and sometimes those who become life-long friends. Genuine humor is the precious gift that keeps on giving.

Workplace humor is a major key to a company’s culture, growth and bottom line. Winning teams connect employees across departments, utilizing humor’s unique stickiness to cement relationships and goodwill. Humorist Steve Kerr says in Forbes: Some organizations tap into ‘The Humor Advantage.’ Zappos and Southwest Airlines harness both a fun culture and humor to help brand their businesses, attract employees and increase profitability.

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.” – Emma Bombeck, Author

Appropriate workplace humor inspires a healthy work environment. Managers and staff sometimes inject relatable funny moments – you know, quirky copy machine or crazy cat video. Humor uncovers authentic people who desire emotional connection and a sense of belonging over self-protection. Sophie Scott’s TED talk: Why we Laugh shares “Valuing Laughter” as a key social cue:

“And when we laugh with people, we’re hardly ever actually laughing at jokes. You are laughing to show people that you understand them, that you agree with them, that you’re part of the same group as them. You’re laughing to show that you like them. You might even love them. You’re doing all that at the same time as talking to them, and the laughter is doing a lot of that emotional work for you. “

Humor’s softening effects help us deal with layers of bureaucracy, ongoing pressures and client hardship. When we welcome humor to help open our “space,” we find room for understanding and resolution. Coping by introducing humor is a move toward acceptance of an often complex and stressful situation.

If humor’s touch is so enlightening, why do we question or fear its use? Perhaps we are afraid our humor attempt will end in a big flop, and we might instead end up being humor’s target.

Workplace humor creates an interesting conundrum. On one hand, we witness how it strengthens relationships and lightens ongoing tensions. On the other hand, we know the dark side of humor – the side that causes hurt feelings, frustration, confusion and resentment. Professors Caleb Warren and Peter McGraw have been developing and testing the Benign Violation Theory. The general humor theory proposes:

“humor occurs when and only when three conditions are satisfied: (1) a situation is a violation, (2) the situation is benign, and (3) both perceptions occur simultaneously. For example, play fighting and tickling, which produce laughter in humans (and other primates), are benign violations because they are physically threatening but harmless attacks.”

At work and elsewhere we encounter numerous annoyances, irritations and other “violations.” These might include sarcastic remarks or out-loud burping. Our responses are highly individual, and vary greatly. Such annoyances subtly – or for others more profoundly – register a signal to the brain. Our minds and hearts wrestle to let it go or allow the “violation” to fester. If distress or unpleasant feelings ensue – two of many components which potentially destroy a healthy humor climate – the situation can turn negative.

As it turns out, humor is a delicate high-wire act. Humor does not translate well across cultures. What’s suitable and accepted as “normal” in one country translates as boorish and unacceptable in another. In fact, for many across the globe burping following a meal at an expensive restaurant signals appreciation for the exceedingly fine cuisine. These differences are powerful reminders that giving others the benefit of the doubt rather than taking offense is often the higher road less traveled.

According to Warren and McGraw, the path to healthy humor needs to gravitate from violation to benign. From a neutral place, amusement takes a front seat and allows the conversation to shift from negative to open.

“Research has highlighted three ways that a violation can seem benign: 1) Alternative norms (e.g., one meaning of a phrase in a pun doesn’t make sense, but the other meaning does), 2) commitment to a violated norm (e.g., men find sexist jokes funnier than women do), and 3) psychological distance (e.g., “comedy is tragedy plus time”).

Do you have what it takes to diffuse a violation? Turn it to something benign? If you need more guidance on the technical how-to’s of humor, check out McGraw’s TedX video here.

We inherently recognize humor’s power to manage uncertain and tragic moments. Let us be mindful if our words and tone of voice harm or empower others. We know we are heading down a destructive path if humor is weaponized to assert superiority. If we are committed to fostering mutual respect, building togetherness and inspiring new perspectives, humor is a most formidable teacher and wonderful friend.

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