How being funny could help your career

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Stylist Team
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While for most men office banter comes naturally, women aren’t quite as au fait with humour at work. Stylist investigates.

Ever thought of that killer witty comeback in the middle of a meeting, only to choke on it just before it left your lips? Or maybe bitten down on a brilliant joke in a presentation as you looked out across a sea of stony faces and worried about that terrible tumbleweed moment? If you have, you’re not alone. A study of male/female differences in workplace humour published in the International Journal Of Humor Research concluded that, at work: “Humour is much less a part of the female’s communicative patterns.”

For while many men wisecrack their way through the working day with ease, often women who could give Joan Rivers a run for her money in the pub are a joke-free zone at their desk. But by quelling our humour the second we enter the office, we may actually be putting ourselves at a disadvantage – there is a growing body of evidence that proving you have a sense of humour is actually good for your career.

Of course, we’re not suggesting you joke your way through your next conference call or start making gags about your workmate’s unfortunate haircut after a lunchtime salon appointment. But believing that we must be serious in order to be taken seriously may be a career hurdle. Chris Robert, assistant professor of management at the University of Missouri-Columbia, who conducted a recent study into the field, says, “We discovered the use of humour and the ability to produce laughter and make jokes is associated with intelligence and creativity – two things highly valued in workplaces.”

Not convinced? Think about it – if you were a boss, who would you hire? The person who got the job done and made you laugh while they were at it, or the one who simply got the job done? A survey of 737 CEOs on the subject was very clear – 98% said they gave preference to people with a sense of humour. Another survey of 100 of the largest American corporations found that 84% of vice presidents and HR directors preferred funny employees.

It’s not just about landing the job either – it actually makes us work better and stay healthier when we do. “The link between humour and positive emotions is strong, and there’s also a strong correlation between positive emotions and workplace performance,” says Robert. Employers have been swift to pick up on this. Julia Murphy, 31, a senior manager in the NHS, tells Stylist that humour is increasingly being heralded as a vital component of any healthy workplace, as well as a key quality in potential leaders.

“I’ve found that teams gel more quickly and are better at tackling challenges when there is an element of humour,” she says. “In NHS leadership training, it is considered a key aspect. Obviously, you don’t want to be the class clown, but many of the great leaders today – Barack Obama, for example – use laughter effectively and to their advantage.”

70% of workplace jokes centre on making fun of age and sexual orientation. Which sex do you think is making most of the gags?

We also know that laughter has a direct impact on our physiological response to stress – the single biggest cause of workplace absence in the UK – and there are also direct links with employee retention. “If you have positive emotions about your job, you’re less likely to quit. You might get a better job offer, but it will take more to draw you away when you like where you work and the people you work with,” Robert explains.

Comedian Sarah Millican agrees: “Humour can be very useful in a) making people like you, b) making people listen and c) helping a dull day fly by.” Not only that, but good-natured banter is a useful way to let off steam in a fairly harmless way, instead of silently seething at your desk-mate.

But evidence suggests just making a decision to be ‘funnier’ is not going to work because studies prove men and women use humour differently. Comedy coach Jill Edwards explains: “It was drummed into us from an early age that being funny was aggressive and masculine; that it wasn’t a social tool we were entitled to.”

Studies by Professor Sam Shuster of Newcastle University suggest that male banter is actually biologically driven, developing from aggression caused by testosterone, which rears its spotty head in teenage years. “This then evolves into adult male humour, which is characterised by repetitive, humorous verbal put-downs often concealing a latent aggression,” says Shuster. The same research suggests men are more likely than women to use humour aggressively by making others the butt of the joke, thus asserting their superiority.

Chartered psychologist Michael Lowis agrees. “Men naturally cope through being competitive and dominating, while women cope by being co-operative and solving difficulties through verbal skills.”

Women build relationships by being collaborative and inclusive, avoiding conflict and, where possible, often mocking ourselves. Apparently these feminine traits do not traditionally make for comedy gold.

John L Locke, author of Duels and Duets: Why Men and Women Talk So Differently, explains, “In a study of ‘put-down’ humour, researchers played tapes of humorous routines in which men or women made fun of themselves or other people. Males preferred jokes that denigrated others, while females were just the opposite. They preferred quips that made fun of them, the tellers.”

What makes this challenging for women is proven by a recent poll that found 70% of people reported that workplace jokes centered around making fun of co-workers based on factors like age and sexual orientation. Add those two facts together, and who do you think is making most of the gags?

All these factors suggest that office humour can often feel like a boys-only comedy club which also means if we do give jokes a go, it doesn’t always go down appropriately with the opposite sex. The old stereotype of the sexist boss making crude gags about the size of his PA’s cleavage may be consigned to the dustbin of Seventies sitcoms, but some male colleagues still take our joking as a come-on.

Mia*, 32, is a business analyst in London’s City. “As an intern, I remember making a few jokes, and being stared at in confusion by senior male colleagues, who didn’t know how to ‘take’ a young woman being funny,” she says.

In fact, Mia’s banter was seen as an open invitation to flirt by both colleagues and clients. “Later in my career, as a junior employee, I’d say something funny and one of the men would immediately give it a sexual twist, which I really resented.” Today, Mia admits that in her determination to be taken seriously and to not invite any unwanted male attention, she has effectively censored herself.

Wit and Wisdom

Of course, none of this implies that women are in any way less funny – we imagine Tina Fey, Kristen Wiig, Miranda Hart, Julia Davis and Sally Phillips would argue very fiercely to the contrary. But what is clear is that we need to engage in office humour on our own terms, and not try to play men at their own game. Self-deprecation – something at which women excel – has been proven to aid with office bonding.

It is a fine line: shrieking with laughter about walking into a meeting with two too many blouse buttons undone is hilarious over a glass of wine, but feels unprofessional in the office. However, if you master it, this form of banter breaks down barriers and creates common ground.

“It is a tricky balancing act,” warns Edwards, “use it sparingly, and only among people on the same level as you, who you know are 100% confident in your professional abilities.”

Similarly, copying testosterone-fuelled put-downs won’t do you many favours. Robert explains, “I think often people blame humour in general when someone’s making an offensive comment. I think of humour as the medium, not the message. If someone makes a mean or sexually charged comment, but they use humour to do it, should we blame humour or should we blame the person’s intentions?”

The basic rule is, if you’re being mean, laughs won’t help you out. Instead, stick to the inclusive observational wit at which we’re brilliant. Humour expert Dr John Morreall explains, “I have found that women can’t remember jokes. Their humour is observational, about the people that they care about.”

He believes that this sort of wit is more effective at prompting other people to engage and contribute – handy if you’re leading a team or taking a meeting.

And if you can’t think of anything witty or funny to say, don’t simply disengage – laughing along will make people warm to you. Comedian Ruby Wax, who is currently studying psychology at Oxford University and runs leadership courses for corporate clients such as the Home Office, agrees. “The past 10 years have seen a huge change in corporate culture,” she says. “People used to want to hire the smartest, slickest candidate. Now they want a human being, someone they can trust. It’s borne out of the recession, of witnessing so many big boys turn out to be crooks.”

Consequentially, the candidate who can charm, who exudes warmth, who personally connects, is at an even greater advantage.

“Humour is a brilliant way of communicating and humanising yourself, but don’t make the mistake of aiming ‘to be funny’ or forcing it,” she warns. “Remember that your ultimate aim is better communication and a happier, less stressful workplace. You don’t need to be funny. You just need to be human.”

Be funny at work - read our top tips for doing office humour well.