High-power humor

By Rachel Garretson

Laughing is good for us. We all know that. It reduces stress, it increases productivity, and it can be used to reduce conflict. These are all reasons to get giggling in life and at work, but we want to introduce you to a few more targeted and lesser-known ways humor is used in the workplace.

Jacqueline Watts conducted a two-pronged study analyzing how women use humor in a male dominated industry like the UK civil engineering profession. The first was an ethnographic study, which is a method that uses long term immersion in a culture to learn more about the beliefs, values and practices of the culture. For the second study, she conducted 31 interviews with U.K. women in various civil engineering positions.

What she focused on was three distinct ways in which women and men use humor in the workplace.

The first way was humor as a tool for resistance. Groups with limited agency like minorities (hint: women!) employed this strategy against dominant power structures. But this can be any group when applied to real-life scenarios.  Watts gives one example of construction workers mimicking the site foremen, or younger employees teasing their older counterparts about technology. This kind of humor lets us challenge inferior status within organizational power structures in an acceptable way, as long as we don’t push too far.

While resistance humor is something all of us use, humor as refuge is something Watts found to be more specific. Refuge humor, almost exclusively used by minorities, was (and is) used to create a safe space, a shared community. It was built upon a common position of relative weakness. In Watts’s study focusing on women in the male dominated engineering sector, female construction workers found comfort in engaging in innocent gossip with the secretarial staff (almost all women). The opportunity to engage in light hearted banter eased the burden of being a minority.

The third type that Watts presents is not so good: humor as exclusion. While women know humor as a tool for exclusion is definitely not an exclusively male trait, Watts found that men used humor to make women a distinct other. This strategy  often challenged women’s professional credibility but are couched as jokes…that it was just “teasing”. The problem is that when these types of jokes are consistently aimed at women, it lumps them together and solidifies a possibly unconscious “us versus them” mentality. This can really wear a woman down. The best coping mechanism is to not internalize it. How?  Maybe strategy #1 and #2 can help.

Sometimes women who experience exclusion take on partial responsibility by saying they aren’t presenting a professional enough image. “It was what I was wearing or how I acted.”Guilty of this? Stop! You know how badass you are. If you don’t, have someone remind you.

Humor is a great tool in the workplace, but don’t let the bad banter get you down. So keep on loling, lmaoing, and rofling. You’ve earned it.

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