Note: The following is an excerpt from Humor That Works: The Missing Skill for Success and Happiness at Work.
Psychologist Rod A. Martin has been studying humor for the past 30-plus years. In the 1990s, he started exploring if the positive benefits of humor on health and well-being might be more related to how people use humor, as opposed to the degree in which they have a sense of humor. This led Martin, along with Patricia Puhlik-Doris, to create the Humor Styles Questionnaire which identifies four styles of humor across two primary dimensions: positive/negative and social/self. Those four styles are:
- Affiliative: Amusing others as a way to facilitate relationships.
- Self-enhancing: Finding amusement in life’s hardships and staying positive.
- Self-defeating: Saying funny things at one’s own expense.
- Aggressive: Disparaging others as a way of manipulating them.
To better understand how to use appropriate humor in the workplace, let’s look at each one in more detail.
Affiliative is the best type of humor to use at work. It helps build and establish relationships with others and is positive — meaning there’s no real target receiving the brunt of the punchline. It is welcoming of others and helps to make the office a better place. It’s basically Ellen DeGeneres and Mister Rogers.
Affiliative humor in the workplace includes things like team-building activities, where they may not be laugh-out-loud funny, but after the activity, the group is stronger.
If you’re ever in doubt as to what type of humor to use, stick with affiliative.
Self-enhancing humor is a close second to affiliative humor for its usefulness at work. It is all about finding amusement in the various challenges and struggles that exist in the office, and it can be a way of combating the stresses of the corporate world.
It’s best epitomized by Kurt Vonnegut: “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.”
If you’re on a project or in a role you don’t enjoy, self-enhancing humor can make it more bearable or just make your day-to-day work more fun. By finding your own personal ways to look at things from a different, more humorous angle, you can improve your overall enjoyment and satisfaction no matter what workplace you’re in.
This is how I started using humor in the workplace. I remember being in a meeting that was so boring, I would have rather been stuck on an elevator forced to make small talk for an hour. The biggest issue, of course, was that I was the one leading the meeting. And I realized that if I was bored while talking, my team had to be bored while listening. That’s when I decided to start making things more fun, not only for my team but for my own sanity.
One of the best things about many forms of self-enhancing humor is that no one can prevent you from doing it. So even if you work in an environment where humor isn’t welcome, you can apply it to your own role for your own benefit. And if you’re happier at work, you’ll likely be happier at home. Humor isn’t just a work skill but a life skill.
Self-defeating humor is a form of negative humor, where the target is you. It is about poking fun at yourself as a way to humble yourself or gain approval or acceptance.
Self-defeating humor can be very effective when you are at the top of the hierarchy. If you’re the CEO, leader of a project, or the one with authority, self-defeating humor can show your audience/direct reports/peers that you have a sense of humor and you don’t take yourself too seriously.
It can also help ease tension and get people on your side. When I’m talking with students who might perceive me as being in some type of leadership position — by function of being brought in as a speaker — I’ll make fun of how skinny I am (I was born 8.3 pounds and stayed that way until I was 15 years old) or talk about my laziness (if I know I’m going to wear a sport coat, I only iron the front of my shirt).
Self-defeating humor does have its time and place, but it can also be detrimental.
Using it when in a low status position or using it too much, regardless of your position, can turn it from a confident way of showing self-awareness to looking as if you are seeking pity. It also requires a lot of confidence to use, and if executed poorly, it can be seen as insensitive.
For these reasons, self-defeating humor should be used only in moderation and in reference to something unrelated to your primary job responsibilities (e.g., your love for ’90s boy-band music, not your “ineptitude” at running a company).
Aggressive humor is the most negative of the four types of humor. It has someone or something else as a target and it’s used to attack the credibility, beliefs, or even existence of that target. George Carlin was a master of this. (“Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.”)
Aggressive humor has a place in the world — things like satire and sarcasm can be effective means of pointing out the absurdities of situations, and it can get people to think in a new way. It can also serve as catharsis for those in oppressive circumstances.
The problem with aggressive humor in the workplace is that while it can help people blow off steam, it does so at someone’s expense and it rarely creates positive change. If you work for a terrible boss, it might relieve stress to do insulting impressions of them behind their back, but it doesn’t make things better. Instead, it’s better to use self-enhancing humor as a way of improving the situation.
Only a Sith deals in absolutes, so I won’t say that aggressive humor should never be used, but there’s no consistent way to use it strategically. Stick with the other forms of humor.
The newspaper rule
The easiest way to check whether or not your humor is appropriate for the workplace is to think of the newspaper rule: Would you be comfortable with whatever you said or did showing up on the front page of your hometown newspaper? Would you want your boss, your coworkers, your mom, or your parakeet to read about it?
If yes, you’re probably OK. If you’re hesitant — “not sure I want my mom to read that” — then it’s probably best to avoid. If you’re thinking, But my mom has a dark sense of humor and curses like a sailor, then consider what my mom would think instead. (FYI: she works in HR.)