Jokes are a serious part of business

Most textbooks fail to discuss the role of humour in business negotiations but from her analysis of two real-life meetings concerning a multi-million pound transaction, Taina Vuorela at the Helsinki School of Economics reports that humour can be an important strategic tool for negotiators.

Vuorela first sat in on an internal strategic meeting held by sellers – four British men and a Finn – at a Finnish company that manufactures engines for use in power plants. She then sat in on a meeting that took place hours later between those sellers and a team of British and Irish buyers representing a British power company.

She found that joking was a sign of power, so that in the second meeting it was the chief buyer who initiated and ended most of the joking. His authority was betrayed by the fact everyone laughed at his jokes. “Based on my observations as a researcher…the quality of his quips did not deserve the level of laughter they received…the sellers seemed to be showing their respect for the head buyer in this way”, Vuorela said.

Humour was also used to express frustration. “It was a ‘safe’ way to express discontent because it permitted the speaker to express a problem while at the same time saving his face or that of the interlocutor because the joke was ‘off-the-record’ and not an official part of the negotiation”, Vuorela explained.

Experts tend to advise against using ethnic humour in business deals but Vuorela found that jokes about cultural differences were common. “Joking about your own national characteristics seems to be an acceptable way to produce ethnic humour”, she said.

Finally, there was evidence of unsuccessful humour – for example, although the sellers joked about their product in private, they did not respond to jokes about their product made by the buyers.

“Although consultative business communication guide books warn negotiators against using humour in multicultural negotiating, the data from this study indicate that disregarding humour in such business meetings would leave a negotiator on the ‘outside’ of the process”, Vuorela concluded.

Vuorela, T. (2005). Laughing matters: A case study of humour in multicultural business negotiations. Negotiation Journal, 21, 105-130.

Post written by Christian Jarrett (@psych_writer) for the BPS Research Digest.

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