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Nine Tips for Understanding Humor in the Workplace

I still remember the thrill of seeing the movie, Funny Girl. There was Barbra Streisand playing Fanny Brice, a plain-looking woman who lands an impossibly handsome husband, Nick Ornstein and rises to the top of her profession. What Fanny lacked in beauty, she made up for with talent, personality, and humor. That movie gave me hope! It helped me learn that humor, used properly and strategically, can not only win me friends and influence people, but also open professional doors.

Here are some tips to help you be your funniest self, while safely navigating today’s complex work environment.

1. Remember that laughter is good for you. Not only can humor make us healthier, it can also trim your waistline!
Every time you have a good hearty laugh, you burn up 3 1/2 calories. Laughter lowers the levels of stress hormones—particularly cortisol, which is one of those things that puts fat on our bellies. Laughing increases oxygen intake, thereby replenishing and invigorating cells. It also increases the pain threshold, boosts immunity, and releases endorphins, a chemical ten times more powerful than the pain-relieving drug, morphine. 

2. Laughter can help you get promoted, while also boosting employee morale, teamwork, retention, and productivity.
In a Robert Half International poll of 1000 executives, 84 percent said that workers with a sense of humor do a better job. Other workplace studies show that the most successful individuals tend to be those with high EQ’s. These are folks who understand emotions and know how to work well with others; they also tend to use humor well. Want to climb the corporate ladder faster? Exercise your laugh muscles more. 

3. Don’t be afraid to be your funny self.
Remember that it is a powerful gift to put a smile on your co-worker’s face and to give them a happy heart. Nothing is more enjoyable than sitting down to work with someone of goodwill who knows how to keep us smiling. It is like a breath of fresh air that makes the day go by faster and smoother. 

4. Humor can be a powerful antidote for stressful situations.
Too much stress and anxiety can cause “flooding,” which is what happens when the brain is overwhelmed with too many stress chemicals. When this happens, our performance begins to weaken, taking with it our ability to think, listen and communicate effectively. Conversely, creativity experts tell us to find ways to relax, laugh, and enjoy ourselves before trying to solve complex problems. This “play time” will give our brains a feel-good chemical bath that will help to keep all pistons firing! So by all means, do use humor to lighten up the mood, relax the tension, and turn around a situation that is going downhill fast. 

5. Humor can be a double-edge sword.
Laughter has the power to heal or to hurt. If your humorous comment is meant to bring people together and lighten up a mood, then go for it. If it is meant to single out anyone or disparage any person or group, then refrain from using it. Beware of sarcasm and hot buttons as well. Frequent use of sarcasm can be a passive-aggressive way of expressing anger and hostility; it’s tiring and off-putting to co-workers. As for hot buttons, we all have them—and we should all treat these tender spots with care. Teasing Robert about his cow lick or Nancy for her kinky hair may seem cute to us—but it could also be something they are sick of hearing about. 

6. Don’t joke about sensitive topics.
I recently saw of re-run of a Seinfeld show. It started with his usual stand-up routine. Then he started joking about suicide, and, oops, I thought, “Bad topic!” I thought to myself, “Hhmmm, now if he were in one of my diversity seminars, we would have a lot to talk about here!” To a lot of people, suicide is not funny. Like other sensitive topics, such as alcoholism, poverty, height, weight, and physical appearance, it is best to stay far away from it. 

7. Be aware of the law.
It is always wise to stay away from joking about any demographic groups or classes protected from discrimination by law. These classes vary by state but generally include: gender, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, age, disabilities, and mental illness. Joking about these things could not only lose you some friends, but you might also be breaking workplace laws and risking suspension, fines, and even getting fired.

Speaking of the law, please remember to also refrain from suggestive and off-color jokes. There is a wide spectrum of how people perceive these jokes, and you might be tripping someone else’s senso-meters—in addition to possibly helping to create a hostile work environment. 

8. Consider using humor to deliver difficult news.
Humor can be a great way to get information across in a non-threatening way. It can make it easier for the other person to hear the news, make them less resistant to the message, and can allow them to “save face.” 

9. Speak up when you are offended.
When you are offended or hurt by someone’s joking, there are simple ways to help us turn the situation around and get us back on the right track. Sometimes, even just a look or just a few words will do. Try something as simple as, “Ouch!” or “Hey!” or “I am not comfortable with that.” If that doesn’t work for you, sometimes just our body language alone will do: silence, a simple shake of the head, raised eyebrows. It is especially important not to laugh if you don’t think that something is funny. This can be especially challenging for us as women, since most of us have been taught to be “nice” and to “just go along to get along.” 

10. Acknowledge it when you offend others.
No matter how well meaning you are, you can never anticipate all the ways that our words may hurt someone else. This is a natural part of our human experience, and it happens sometimes when we are trying to be funny. When it does happen, there is no need to panic, get defensive or overly apologetic. Just try something simple to acknowledge the hurt. Try something like, “Oops!” or “I am sorry.” or “Thanks for telling me.” or “Sorry, that didn’t come out right!”

Of course, if you are not sure why the person is offended, it is important to find out what happened. In cases like this, I usually say something like, “Oh, I am sorry! I can see that you are upset—and that was certainly not my intention. Can you please explain it to me so that I don’t do it again?”

By Paula Parnagian for Vibrant Nation