By Alex Fradera
A little humor in the workplace appears broadly beneficial: it can increase productivity and creativity and helps to build trust. But before you get too carried away attempting to stun your colleagues with your wit, you might want to heed the findings from new research in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, which focused on the effect of humour attempts on our personal status. The work shows that while a well-judged gag can cover us in glory, misses can have negative consequences. What’s more, this risky nature partly explains why we hold funny people in esteem.
An initial study had a decidedly scatological bent. The researchers Brad Bitterly, Alison Wood Brooks, and Maurice Schweitzer asked participants to make up customer testimonials for a company that specialised in pet waste removal. Afterwards each participant listened to testimonials supposedly made up by other participants and judged the calibre of the person who’d written them. For instance, one testimonial began: “Very professional. After cleaning up the poop, they weren’t even upset when they found out that I don’t have a pet!” Participants gave higher ratings of status, competence and confidence to participants who delivered a funny “faecestimonial”, compared to their straight-faced counterparts.
Next the researchers investigated what happens when jokes fall flat. Nearly 300 participants read about a hypothetical job interview where a candidate responded to a question either with a straight answer or with an attempt at humour. When the humour was successful – the manager laughed – the candidate was perceived as higher status, but there was no advantage when the moment was followed by stony silence. It seems a flopped joke doesn’t help your status, but doesn’t lower it either. But what happens when the humour isn’t just weak, but also inappropriate?
In another study – a rehash of the job interview scenario – a cheeky candidate replied to a question with a tasteless “that’s what she said” sexual innuendo. Candidates that attempted the joke and were met with silence were judged the most harshly, rated as low status and incompetent. Those who won a laugh (suggesting the attempt wasn’t entirely misjudged) were still rated lower than candidates who didn’t make a crass joke. A repeat of the experiment with a different tasteless joke reinforced the finding: inappropriate humour is a poor gambit that leaves you worse off than forgoing the opportunity.
According to Bitterly and his colleagues, the fact that joke-telling harbours risk is partly why it commands our appreciation. To correctly gauge the right humour for your audience and nail the delivery requires competence. Moreover, the mere act of attempting a joke betrays confidence because of the fact that it can easily backfire. Indeed, jokers were always rated as more confident, even when the jokes were misjudged and failed to produce their intended effect. To some extent, this explains why failed jokes (when in good taste) didn’t significantly change status, as they betray low competence but redress this somewhat through showing confidence.
Bitterly’s team suggest that “many individuals may be missing opportunities to project confidence, demonstrate their competence, and increase their status” by making attempts at tasteful humour. But how to avoid backfires? Humour usually involves some break with the expected or permitted, most often a social norm, but also absurdist humour that subverts reality itself, like Mitch Hedberg’s “My fake plants died, because I did not pretend to water them”. According to Bitterly’s group (and other humour scholars), the key to successful joke telling is to ensure your audience understands the threat is benign, rather than indicating genuine anti-social or confused thinking. When the joke leads people to wonder if you endorse the sentiment, or that you are providing cover for people that do, then they are liable to think less of you… even if you’ve perfected your comic