I think using humor in the office is highly under-rated.
Research shows that the quickest way to form a positive connection with someone new is to laugh together. (Hopefully, not about the outfit your other colleague is wearing -- this is not the movie Mean Girls.) The pace of work is crazy today, so anything that helps you connect with a colleague quickly and positively is good.
Humor can also diffuse a tense situation. I had an "aha!" moment early in my career when I was working for Kraft General Foods Europe in Munich, Germany. I led a meeting with all of the chief information officers from each European affiliate about a new software package we were considering. I asked (stupidly): "Should this software be in foreign languages?" Blank stares. I tried again, slower and louder. More blank stares. I (not) helpfully added, "You know, French, German, Spanish..." Finally, the colleague from France sputtered, "What are you talking about? These are our mother tongues, they're not foreign languages!" My sense of humor saved me as I explained, "Hey, I'm American, English spoken in England is a foreign language to me!"
I guess my survival instinct kicked in and it was definitely a teachable moment: make fun of yourself, and the crowd will come with you.
You need to be savvy about when to use humor. Or, at least, be able to learn from the times when making a joke was a seriously bad choice. If I wrote down every time I should not have made a joke, this blog would be War and Peace. There is a very fine -- let me emphasize very fine -- line between when to make a joke and when not to. The simplest advice I can give you is: watch before you speak. Watch when other people use humor in the office. How did it work out? What kind of humor was it? Was it effective, or did it bomb? You're smart; I am confident you can come up with a strategy that will work for you if you want to be funny in the office.
You might ask: why use humor at all if it's so risky? Why not just zip it and save all your witticisms for your personal time? This is a valid strategy. But, most of us enjoy funny moments and as we all work many hours, it seems a little sad to leave humor at the bus stop as we commute to work.
Of course, there has to be ground rules about using humor in the office, which are in line with the culture of the organization. I can imagine humor in the office is much more acceptable for the writers of a TV comedy show than in a funeral home. But, most of us don't work in such a clear-cut environment. The rules about using humor in the office are usually unwritten. Sadly, God didn't hand these to Moses on Mount Sinai. But, break them and you will discover that they are written on tablets of stone.
Do I really need to explain to you when it's not appropriate to use humor in the office? Seriously? Did you dress yourself this morning? (See? Funny, but personal + sarcastic = not appropriate.)
There is one simple rule: never, ever, ever make a joke at the expense of someone else -- their jobs, their beliefs, the institutions they value, their heritage, their children, their partners or their pets. Especially not their pets, they didn't steal your promotion, leave them out of this!
As I said above, the only person you can make a joke about at work is yourself. And frankly, in my case, there's plenty of material to last until my retirement and I magically seem to come up with new material every day.
If you decide to be funnier at work, come sit next to me. And the day corporate humor goes mainstream, move over Honey Boo Boo!
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