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Making Sense of Humour in the Workplace

By Steve Bannister |

Laughing Together
It's a funny thing (I mean funny-strange, not funny-ha, ha!) about humour; it's a definite necessity to a healthy life at work and at home but we don't always admit it or recognize its power. The daily challenges which contribute to our increasing stress levels continually drain us of energy. Humour binds us together, lightens our burdens and helps us keep everything in perspective.

Women consistently cite, "having a sense of humour" as one of the top three characteristics they find attractive in men. They feel a comfort and a security in knowing that they don't have to engage continually in serious conversations. Laughter lightens the mood of almost all situations.

Dr. Robert R. Provine, a professor of Neurobiology and Psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, has spent numerous years studying laughter. He has eavesdropped on 1,200 bouts of laughter among people in malls and other public places. As a result, he has discovered that most of what we laugh at in life is not particularly funny. It is basically social banter: the kind of everyday conversations which we all share. There is no denying our need to belong to a group.

Take My Job ... Please!
Tom Peters, a business guru who is always one step ahead in business thinking, says this about the importance of humour at work: "The number one premise of business is that it need not be boring or dull. It ought to be fun. If it's not fun, you're wasting your life."

He believes that infusing more humour into the workplace will increase creativity, teamwork and ultimately productivity. The reality is that the best people are attracted to working environments where there is an element of fun. If good people are placed in an environment that is impersonal, cold and unfriendly for an extended period of time, that is how they will eventually behave.

Many businesses are now beginning to realize that the punch line can benefit the bottom line. Robert Half International, an executive recruitment firm, conducted a survey of 1,000 executives and discovered that 84 percent of respondents felt that workers with a sense of humor do a better job. Another survey by Hodge-Cronin & Associates found that of 737 CEOs surveyed, 98 percent preferred job candidates with a sense of humour to those without.

Employers are looking for the same characteristics which are inherent in those people who have a good sense of humour, namely; more creativity and productivity, fewer absentees and sick days, and better decision-making capabilities.

What does this mean for an employee who is not the comedic center of attention at work? Well, before everyone rushes out to enroll in a crash course on how to become another Jay Leno, or David Letterman, it's important to note that a good sense of humour need not include the capacity to tell a funny joke or the ability to fire off witty remarks. The essence of developing a good sense of humour is not taking yourself too seriously and keeping a positive attitude.

The Four Senses of Humour
Humour can have many positive or negative effects. Most people have witnessed or have used any one of the following five general types of humour.

  1. Self-Deprecating Humour - Poking fun of oneself can provide a much needed relief from tense situations. Conversely, an excess of this type of humour may make other people uncomfortable and lead to serious low self-esteem issues.
  2. Put-Down Humour - This type of humour involves teasing, sarcasm and ridicule and it tends to be a popular form of humour around the water cooler. If aimed at politicians, actors etc. it is harmless and can help to form social bonds, although if aimed at fellow workers, it can become a form of social aggression.
  3. Bonding Humour - People who exhibit bonding humour are generally fun to be around. They tell funny jokes, lighten the mood and partake in witty banter. Bonding humour can either provide a sense of togetherness or it can isolate individual employees.
  4. Observational Humour - Observational humour is the healthiest of all of the four types. People who use this type of humour have a unique outlook on life. They are always able to see the bright side of things and they don't take themselves too seriously. This enables them to deal more easily with daily stress in their life at work and at home. Observational humour is the only type of humour which can be enjoyed alone. As a result, studies linking humour with health have tended to concentrate on this type of humour.

Laughter is the Best Medicine
The effects of humour on our body are quite dramatic. Dr. William F. Fry, a psychiatrist at the Stanford University School of Medicine has been studying laughter for more than 40 years. He says that 20 seconds of intense laughter, even if faked, is equivalent to 10 minutes spent rowing.

Humour has the power to do many positive things to our bodies. It's responsible for elevating our mood, breaking up boredom and fatigue and giving us more resilience. It also boosts our immune system, reduces stress, relaxes muscles and lowers our blood pressure. With the increasing age of the Baby Boomers, these benefits are proving to be no laughing matter!

Your humourous personal health also has positive repercussions at work. Because of humours' social nature, those people with a healthy sense of humour are less overwhelmed in tough situations, more cheerful and less rigid. They are also able to use laughter to diffuse hostility and encourage cooperation when working in a team and completing projects. People who laugh well together work well together.

Humour Help is Here
Okay, so you're interested in lifting your laugh ability factor, or maybe finding your inner funny. Here are a few tips on how to do this at work.

  • Suffocate sarcasm - It has too much potential to be taken the wrong way in a work environment.
  • Justify your jokes - Don't just memorize the latest joke making the rounds on email. Tailor your jokes to the individual and keep them clean.
  • Be frugally funny - Making a funny comment to diffuse tension during a meeting is a great idea, but don't overdo it.
  • Join a friendly neighbourhood - Hang around funny friends. Spend time with those who are upbeat and avoid negative people whenever possible.
  • Giggle with the gang - You can be seen as having a great sense of humour without ever telling a joke. Just listen to those around you and share in their laughter.
  • Get with it - Remind yourself to have fun everyday. Place humourous cartoons and quotes in your personal workspace.
  • Partake in periodic personal putdowns - This can put others at ease and you don't risk offending anyone. Be sure to keep a light mood and don't make it a habit.

Now you're off to make your world a funnier place. Just remember:

"The ultimate test of whether you posses a sense of humour is your reaction when someone tells you you don't."
- Frank Tyger.

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