Research shows that women struggle to find their funny side at work, so Miranda Hart, currently reigning on high from the editor’s seat in the Stylist office, offers her advice on how to use humour to get ahead
Photography: Mark Harrison Words: Miranda Hart
Call me unusual, that’s fine, but I strongly believe that there is something about a formal scenario that provokes a rather odd, childish response in all of us. The workplace is a prime example. Being cooped up in an office and monitored for our output of spreadsheets, reports and afternoon tea rounds is akin, almost, to having to stifle a laugh in church so much you need to wee; except it lasts eight hours and afterwards you go to the pub for a double portion of chips and a lager shandy. What it breeds, in many, is an almost dramatic backlash to ‘seriousness’. One that practically commands us to plunder the stationery cupboard, encase ourselves in layers of bubble wrap and stage a makeshift wrestling competition at 2pm on a Wednesday.
I know this because I have spent a lot of time in offices. I’ve been a temp, a cleaner, and even worked my way up to the dizzying heights of office manager (which basically meant ordering and organising stationery). And from over a decade of toiling in admin I learnt that work can be just so terribly mundane that even the smallest, weirdest distraction can become hilarious. In fact, I’d say 90% of my actually-it’s- so-funny-I-might-snort-like-a-hog laughing has happened during a slow day at the office.
But now, it seems, ‘research’ disagrees with me. Well partly, at least. Because while the office might be a prime backdrop for japery and ‘merry prankage,’ (like when I accidentally lost the charity I was working for thousands of pounds of business by bellowing across the building’s speaker system during an important pitch that I’d just done a “really massive poo”), evidence suggests that women can often fall flat (and not into a vat of custard) when we try to use humour in the office.
No don't laugh, she's supposed to be editing
For example: a recent study looking at the differences between male and female humour at work, (published in the International Journal Of Humour Research no less, so it must be correct), concluded that in an office scenario, “Humour is much less a part of [women’s] communicative patterns [than men’s].” So while we are by no means less funny than men (yes, sure we could launch into that old debate good and proper, but let’s not bother and go with that as a fact – much easier all round and of course it is a fact anyway!) perhaps our humour is just less-suited to an office environment, which can all too often be fuelled by aggressive one-upmanship and ‘pithy’ one-liners in the boardroom.
And it’s not as if the office is short of comedy characters. There’s always the on-the-pull guy and the on-the-pull girl, isn’t there? Then the woman who is probably a bit too old to be at work but we can’t fire her. We’re all covering her back because she’s been there too long and can’t remember anything now, but she loves it so much that we can’t let her go (that’ll be me in 20 years when I’m back in the office. I’ll do a bit of panto first, on the way down; then I’ll go back to temping). And then there’s the boss. Hierarchy is weird, and uncomfortable; you’ll either have a boss you’ve got to try and get round, or you’ll find them outrageously cringe-worthy. I once had a manager who was so shy, if we were caught in the stationery cupboard doing haircuts with the ‘proper’ office scissors or sleeping off our hangovers on manila envelopes, he’d come in and go, “I’m so sorry, I’ll come back later.”
But experts say it doesn’t come naturally to women to exploit the ‘material’ offered up to us in the office and show off like men. No matter how hard we try, we struggle to mimic this kind of comedic machismo; to swan into the office, deliver a devastatingly funny quip about the boss’ mangy toupee, and exit smugly with a trail of belly-laughing co-workers in our wake. But what are we afraid of? Is it failure? Or rejection? Or of making an attempt at a witty one-liner and crashing headfirst into the type of awkward silence that usually comes accompanied by a ball of tumbleweed approaching slowly from off camera.
Well, yes. All of them. OBVIOUSLY. But also, it’s just not a humour that’s familiar to us. A recent poll found that 70% of workplace jokes centre around making fun of co-workers, based on things like age and sexual orientation. As women, I’d suggest our humour is more collaborative; we seek the approval of others by sending ourselves up, by taking the mickey out of ourselves or by sharing every minute detail of the mortifying moment we lost our footing on the tube and ended up straddling an angry looking man with a briefcase and a well-thumbed John Grisham novel. But while we might find this type of humour outrageously funny (it is funny), sadly it’s not really benefiting us in the workplace. Research shows it pays (literally) to make your co-workers laugh – one study in America even found a positive correlation between the size of an executive’s bonus and their use of humour. A survey of 737 CEOs by recruitment company Hodge- Cronin & Associates also found that 98% of them would rather hire someone funny and even NASA has publicly stated that when it recruits for future astronauts, one of the most important personality traits they look for is a sense of humour (I am thinking of a change of career and asking Sandi Toksvig, Sue Perkins and Sarah Millican to come and join me in applying for a job on a spaceship together. What larks we’d have. And cue the lads’ jokes about the joy of getting rid of us female comics into the abyss).
"Yeah, I've got roses, candles and everything"
Oh, and the scientists aren’t exactly on our side, either. Thanks scientists. They found that the reward-related regions of women’s brains show greater levels of activity than men’s when they are exposed to humour; suggesting that women have evolved to ‘appreciate’ comedy, whereas men have evolved to ‘produce’ comedy. In fact, it’s been revealed that 71% of women laugh when a man tells a joke, but only 39% of men laugh when a woman tells a joke. I find this deeply satisfying that it has been proven scientifically because I have always said that it is wiring that stops men laughing at women. They are not yet culturally evolved into realising women are funny. And we mustn’t blame them or get feminist about it. I am zen about it. It’s just the way it is. I totally appreciate that men are less likely to buy tickets to my tour – they don’t trust it will be money well spent. And that’s fine. It will keep evolving and changing. I have noticed it improve in the four years since my sitcom has been on air – more and more men freely say to me they like the show rather than four years ago when it was, “My missus loves you”. And women laughing at men – well, a lot of that is flirting. We feel we should laugh at them to get in their good books, or so that they will consider us a sexual partner. That will change too. I genuinely think a big reason I have dated less than other female friends is that I haven’t played the game of laughing at men unless I find them genuinely funny. Well, that and the fact I am open about bottom wind.
But the thing is, I think women, generally, when they are in the right job, are actually better than men. I’ll go even further; they are better at work in general. Because they have to prove themselves, so they work harder. They have a fear of being judged, they have a fear of letting people down, they have a fear of being told off. It is still in our cultural DNA to think, “I shouldn’t really be here,” so we feel like we need to prove ourselves. We really work a lot harder and that’s where we succeed. But making our own humour work in the office would really be the icing on the cake. Once we’ve done that, we really will be the ones in control (not wanting to sound like any sort of robotic overlord). Here are my tips.
My office comedy mantras
Don't take things too seriously
The minute you lose your sense of humour about a situation, everything is just a drudge. So try and diffuse difficult situations with comedy. If I’m in a tense conversation with someone, or if I’m confronted by a diva (male or female) who is kicking off about something so unnecessary, then I always undercut it with humour by sort of saying, “I know, whatever next, have your flamingos arrived yet? And if not, why not?” Through humour you can completely knock them off their feet. I’ll go, “I know, it’s awful. Poor. You. Now. The Ethiopians would equally be concerned at this. Syria would put aside their issues for this, I’m with you girl, it’s really serious.” Hopefully it’s not manipulative, I don’t mean it to be that (and actually, studies have shown that laughter can diffuse tension between two opposing business parties), so it’s just finding a way to go, “Come on, this is really not important.”
I think there are women maybe 10 or 15 years older than me who really had to push in certain industries and be tough and ballsy women or manly. Whereas now I think we can be ourselves more and actually use that as a means to be funny and get ahead. We can still be the nice ‘normal’ emotional woman at work and still make progress; still be successful. As a woman I need to cry, quite regularly actually, in order to just survive at work and I really don’t understand women who are vile to their colleagues or tough just for the sake of it. It takes so much energy to be angry and cross. It really winds me up. It just ruins womankind.
Don't try and match the men
It’s a cliche but men will always have those stereotypical one-liners about football and sex. I don’t think women have anything to say on those matters, mainly because a lot of the time they would rather read a book than watch football or have sex on a week night. But I do think it’s quite tragic seeing a woman trying to fit in with male banter. When she goes, “Yes lads, I’ve been there,” and holds her hand up for a high five or something. You just think, ‘Oh no, don’t, please.’ The truth is: women can’t banter. When they do it, it’s actually quite ugly. That’s why you don’t get so many women on panel shows; it’s not something that comes naturally to us. I can’t do one-liners at the best of times. I think once, in a group of men, I’ve joked, “Oh I’ve just farted, move away!” And they’ve just gone, “Eurgh! You’re a woman, you’re not allowed to fart.” We do, of course, but humour about it just doesn’t work.
"So potential cover ideas, how about me and Ryan Gosling... ?"
Use your shortcomings to your advantage
Whatever it is, you’re probably going to look more confident if you can make a joke about it. I found an interesting study that said researchers examining the scripts of male and female professional comedians (cough, cough) found that 12% of male scripts contained self-disparaging humour compared with 63% of female scripts. This doesn’t surprise me. Even at work I used humour to control the jokes about myself. You have so many insecurities going on that you just think, “Oh I’ll make the joke about my height, or I’ll make the joke about my weight. I’m in control of that.” I think you’re very lucky if you’ve got humour to use like that. It’s protective. Men, on the other hand, would never show their vulnerability; they would never admit to their insecurities. And who can blame them. As a man, you’re allowed to be fat. It won’t get referenced. Whereas, certainly in my job, it’ll be ‘Starring *insert name of actor* and the Amazonian Miranda Hart.’ It’s like “Hang on, what about ‘Fat blah de blah and the Amazonian Miranda Hart?’” We have to be labelled by how we look whereas men aren’t, so therefore they don’t have to apologise for that.
Ultimately, it's all about the confidence
I cringe now at the fact I used to encourage people at the office to come and see me at gigs. But back then there was a sort of youthful confidence and hope that I was marvellous. “Come along to my revue, above a pub…” I had no qualms about bumping into them the next day at the printer, and them running away in sheer terror so they didn’t have to give me ‘feedback’. My sister actually revealed to me recently that back then my shows weren’t always that great. They saw potential and laughed from time to time but weren’t necessarily convinced and as time went on she said they didn’t know how much longer they should leave it until they said, “How about sticking with the office manager-ing”. But I guess my deluded confidence came off. Some 48% of women say they believe they’d have gone further in their careers if they had more confidence. It’s not easy, but try and fake it. It might just work.
Miranda Hart My, What I Call, Live Show begins February 2014; mirandahart.com; Miranda Series 1-3 box set and Maracattack are out on DVD now
Miranda is the only woman in our 200-issue history to have appeared on none other than three Stylist covers (Issue 60 – 12 January 2011, Issue 145 – 19 October 2012 and, of course, this very special issue). So it’s only right that she’s our celebrity guest editor. Not that the power has gone to her head, of course. Not at all… To see Miranda in action visit stylist.co.uk.