Workplace humour: what are the boundaries?

11 January 2016 -


Sometimes a badly timed joke is no laughing matter…

Guest blogger Adrian Furnham

Beware the humorous aside; the clever pun, the amusing anecdote.

How often are people landed in hot water through their supposed sense of humour? More and more famous people are humiliated even sacked for what many seem as a minor remark. “It was meant as a joke” doesn’t sound too good in the court room or the cold, in-house inquiry room. How many have been punished after an off-hand double entendre?

What is the function of humour? What types of humour are acceptable and which verboten? What are the consequences of stamping on those who assess verbal wit? Does humour travel?

Why do some people enjoy aggressive or sexual humour, while others prefer intellectual or black humour? Is personality related to humour creation, e.g. telling jokes, making puns? Do people who can make us laugh have quite different personality traits to those who do not or cannot?

It is very difficult to be funny in a second language. Does this explain British monoglotism because they need subtlety and humour to communicate “sensitive issues”?

What indeed is the social function of humour? The issue is how humour can generate a sense of group solidarity/belongingness, provide a safety valve for dealing with group pressure, and help individuals cope with threatening, negative experiences.

The ancient Greeks saw humour as being related to the humours and clearly, sanguine types were more humorous than melancholic types. But humour creativity seems unrelated to humour appreciation. The former is concerned with perceiving and describing people, objects or situations in an incongruous way (i.e. humorously). The latter is the enjoyment of these descriptions.

Thus we have four possible types, namely individuals who are high/high (frequently making witty remarks/jokes and seeking out other people or situations where there is humour), low/low (serious people who do not enjoy telling or hearing humorous stories), high/low (people who enjoy telling jokes but show little appreciation when told them by others) and low/high (people who are not much given to creating humour but who love to laugh and do so frequently).

There are also very different types of humour:

  • Nonsense humour based on puns or incongruous combinations of words or images;
  • Satire based on ridiculing persons, groups or institutions;
  • Aggressive humour that describes brutality, violence, insults and sadism;
  • Sexual humour which is based on sexual behaviour, roles, and stereotypes;
  • Toilet humour that seems particularly appealing to the British.

Freud wrote a number of papers on humour. He was fascinated by its functions, as well as by the techniques/mechanics of making jokes.

Jokes, like dreams, he believed provide an insight into the unconscious. They are important defence mechanisms, and suppressing them can lead to serious consequences. Freud divided jokes into two classes, namely the innocent/trivial and the tendentious.

The latter served two major purposes - aggression (satire) or sex.

Thus the purpose of the most interesting jokes is the expression of sexual or aggressive feelings that would otherwise be barred. Furthermore, the amount and timing of laughter correspond to the psychical energy saved by not having to repress. ‘In jokes veritas: jokes are a socially accepted and socially shared mechanism of expressing what is normally forbidden.’

Freudian theory is a fruitful source of testable hypotheses. For instance, individuals finding aggressive jokes funniest will be those in whom aggression is normally repressed. Those whose main defence mechanism is repression and who have a strong social conscience will be humourless (they will not laugh at jokes). Wits will be more neurotic than the normal population, while highly repressed individuals prefer jokes with complex joke-work to ‘simple’ jokes.

But what of humour preference?

Extraverts tend to like fast jokes (skits/comedy) and practical jokes. They can take jokes at their own expense and approve of others who can laugh at themselves. Some neurotic unstable people like satire and black humour but tend not to enjoy other humour much. Worse, they fail to appreciate the possible uses of humour as an antidote to their anxiety, moodiness and depression. Equally, they fail to appreciate others who use humour as a coping mechanism; as a way to attack and distort reality and thus make things more tolerable.

Many professional humourists are notably introverted - serious people who are not much prone to laughter. Writers are more introverted than performers, but even the latter tend to be unstable (neurotic), and characterised by anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.

However, they find that their humour gives them power over others and an ability to compensate for their feelings of inferiority.

The problem with humour at work is that ‘one man’s meat is another’s poison’ and the humourless will inherit the earth because they have been rewarded for “telling nanny”. There are of course occasions when ‘humour’ is really inappropriate and insulting but often jokes, like hearing aids, are in the ear of the beholder.

Adrian Furnham is a business psychologist and author of 80 books and 1,000 scientific papers. He is an adjunct professor at the Norwegian Business School. Find his website here

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