Laugh and the World Complains to HR: Humour at Work

humor at work

By Adrian Furnham

But it was just “workplace banter”! Another pale, stale, frail male attempts to defend himself against a range of accusations of “inappropriateness” in the workplace. Do you dare to tell a joke, make a pun, offer a witty observation in the office? You have to know the company you keep well before offering a clever witticism or topical joke these days.

Comedians themselves are very worried about the massive rise in complaints and threats from all quarters. Satire mocks people and institutions that are too rigid and pompous. It points up stupidity, hypocrisy and social injustice (hoping to promote change). It is the very essence of political humour and is hated by dictators everywhere. It, too, is under attack.

We all know that a sense of humour can operate as a defence against adverse, inescapable circumstances, e.g., disability or mortality. It helps us to screen out negative aspects of reality and promotes optimism. The British, in particular, use humour as a coping method that is thought to be healthy.


Liberals like sexual, aggressive and disparaging cartoons; conservatives prefer “safe”, word-based, intellectual jokes, especially those that provide “incongruity resolution” (feelings of closure). 

It might come as a surprise to many that humour, at least since Freud, has been a respectable area of psychological research and enquiry. Researchers have asked and tried to answer questions such as: What is the psychological function of humour? Are there different types of jokes: funny ha-ha, funny pathetic, funny peculiar? What is the psychological profile of comedians? Why do some people seem to have no “sense of humour”? Does humour travel across countries and cultures? What, indeed, about cruel, racist, sexist or tasteless jokes? What is it like to be laughed at? Does the use of humour in advertising help sales? Are there sex differences in humour? What about “canned laughter” and why is it now banned?

We all know that humour preferences relate to personality and social attitudes. Liberals like sexual, aggressive and disparaging cartoons; conservatives prefer “safe”, word-based, intellectual jokes, especially those that provide “incongruity resolution” (feelings of closure).

It certainly has been noticed that comedians make better psychologists than psychologists make comedians. But psychologists have studied the psychological profile of stand-up comedians as well as popular entertainers. Despite one or two famous examples (Bob Hope and George Burns), comedians, and other performers, actually die younger than comparable professions. The health benefits of humour may apply more to the audience than the clowns.

The psychological literature suggests that joke-telling techniques are pleasurable in themselves; they can allow for childish, irrational thinking (what psychologists call “id” – primary process or regression in the service of the ego). They are very often the expression of unacceptable sexual and aggressive impulses in a socially acceptable manner. In short, they relax inhibitions.

For the Freudians, humour releases emotions and drives that are normally repressed, particularly sex and aggression. Obscene wit stimulates sexual drives; witty invective – aggressive drives. These drives are normally kept in check by the superego (the “moral censor”). But the release of drives allows release of energy normally used for repression, expressed as laughter. So the spoilsports and party poopers are right: humour is often about sex and violence.

Humour is a safety valve. Its emotional power often derives from an instinctive, libidinal element (e.g., sex, aggression, fear of death). Tension is relieved by some trick or twist that makes clear it is all “just in fun”, what Freud well over a hundred years ago called the joke technique. If people are sexually aroused (e.g., by viewing erotic movies), they find most jokes funnier.

One form of hostility is disparagement (assertion of superiority over others, often an out-group). This may be directed against an individual or type of person (e.g., ethnic and sexist jokes). Put-downs are enjoyed by the in-group (those who “get the joke” share the stereotype) but are usually unfunny or offensive to the victims. People smile at the misfortune of others (schadenfreude), especially when the victim is disliked, high-status and envied, like bankers, politicians from the “other side”, traditional enemies of the country.

Some jokes are neither libidinous nor targeted at out-groups but focus on the intellectual: conceits, wordplay, juxtaposition and surprise. A cognitive puzzle-solving aspect is central to many forms of humour, though not appreciated by all. Mirth arises from a sudden debunking of expectation or restructuring of perception (a reward for exercising an important survival skill).



The idea that humour and laughter may be good for people has not escaped managers and gurus. If it has been shown that humour provides short- and long-term positive emotional, social and physiological effects, it is no surprise that businesspeople are interested. If humour can reduce absenteeism and increase productivity, we certainly need it. So, do we have to hire humour consultants, or arrange humour workshops and/or use humour as an essential competency in hiring and promotion decisions?

The business boffins say humour is an important stress buster. To see the funny side of all those daft corporate activities does help. It keeps things in proportion and may even boost morale among the “little people” who are often victims of head-office madness.

Humour may have other functions. It can help engender a sense of playfulness, which in turn can help creativity. It can boost morale and help bind teams together. It certainly can help in all social occasions like dreary meetings. It can defuse conflict, open dialogues and allow difficult and subtle things to be said while allowing everyone to save face. It can help people connect quickly and build rapport. And it is particularly important in customer service situations.

Those blessed with a sense of humour seem to be able to do things with a lighter touch, to develop trust and to communicate more effectively than their humour-challenged colleagues. Or can they? The business hype about the use of humour at work may have forgotten something rather important: the “politically correct” police.

humor preference


Humour is used in advertising to gain attention and to build warm, playful associations with a product. Advertisers want you to remember brand names and buy the product. There are many ways of getting your attention, such as sex and humour.But studies show, paradoxically to many, that sex does not sell, but humour does.

Programmes and the ads within them can both be classified as humorous and non-humorous. Is it a good idea to place a humorous ad in a non-humorous programme? It depends on many factors: the type of humour and the type of programmes, but only when the ad is likeable, not irritating. Humour operates to combat people’s natural resistance to aggressive marketing through a process of distraction.

Viewers of funny ads do not necessarily remember the brand afterwards but make the positive association with the right product once in the store.

Funny is sexy

The research, though possibly now a little a dated, is clear: men tell more jokes than women. Men are more drawn to libidinous and competitive themes; women to clever wordplay. People laugh at men’s jokes more than women’s jokes. Women laugh much more at men’s jokes than vice versa. GSOH (good sense of humour) is a code for intelligence in the online dating world and thought to be very attractive in a man.

Many men have worked out that humour has mating value – signalling intelligence and creativity (good genes). That is why online dating profiles often have GSOH as something men boast or women want. Funny people tend to be clever, socially self-confident, emotionally intelligent – don’t they?

Attractive people are seen as funnier and humour boosts attractiveness, particularly for short-term flings. Some studies have shown that women are three times more likely to give their phone number to a suitor they have just heard tell a joke to a friend. Women want a partner who is both receptive to humour and funny; men just want a partner who will laugh at their jokes.

Humour in marriage has also been studied. Constructive, affiliative and self-enhancing humour went with happy and stable marriages. Antisocial, sarcastic and vulgar humour went with poor relationships and divorce.

Humour and health

Humour and laughter are, quite simply, good for you. Laughter lowers blood pressure and oxygenates the blood, thereby increasing energy levels and the feeling of well-being. It reduces hormones released in response to stress and helps prevent lethargy. Further, over time, it has been shown to boost the immune system. So it is true: laughter is the best medicine.

The ultimate health benefit might be an increased life expectancy. Some studies suggest that a sense of humour correlates with subjective health and independently improves survival, at least up until age 65.

Laughter is “good medicine” but the exact process or mechanism that explains longevity is, of course, more complex. For instance, people with a sense of humour probably have a better support system (more friends), which explains a lot.


Types of humour

The problem is that humour may be rather idiosyncratic. Those who praise the use of humour seminars and workshops skip over this all-important point. What one person finds very funny either “passes over” or “pisses off” his or her colleagues.
Those psychologists interested in taxonomising humour have found very different groups. Whether it is visual or verbal humour, there appear to be quite different categories of jokes and stories that are thought of as funny. Four groups seem very clear:

  • Nonsense humour: jokes, shaggy dog stories or cartoons, that rely on tricks like puns or incongruous inconsistent situations.
  • Satire: jokes or stories that are funny because they “take the mickey” out of, and attempt to ridicule, particular people, groups, organisations or institutions.
  • Aggressive humour: this works for certain people and can show (particularly in cartoons) pictures of violence, torture and even sadism, as well as verbal insults.
  • Sexual humour: this, of course, refers to subtle or explicit sexual jokes from simply suggestive to crude and vulgar, depending on your taste and definition.

It is, of course, possible to find other categories and split the above. Those social scientists who research humour have also been interested in the correlates of humour. Are there culture, gender, intelligence and personality correlates of humour? Why does some humour not travel while other types seem universal? Do more intelligent people like puns, spoonerisms and wordplay more than less intelligent people? Do people grow out of some types of humour?

Yet the use of any sort of humour has come under the spotlight because of the growing right of offence. Tell a joke (from any of the above categories) and you can be sure that someone, somewhere will be offended. They may not like you, or perhaps they have had a sense of humour bypass, but it does not matter. They complain and instigate an investigation. And there is nothing as problematic as explaining a joke and why it is funny.

So humour has become more and more constrained and verboten in the workplace. Unless it is completely anodyne and therefore, by definition, not very funny, it may be very unwise to try humour to diffuse a situation or communicate something rather subtle.

Whether it is funny ha-ha, funny peculiar or funny pathetic, it is now unwise to say it. For some, this robs them of a primary coping strategy they have relied upon. If humour is a stress buster, surely we should encourage it.

But most of us have learned to be very careful with jokes, puns and off-the-cuff remarks meant to be funny. It is sometimes called banter. It is too easy to offend and get into trouble these days. So, if in doubt, desist! It seems, to some, that there is an army of people just waiting to be offended.

Best keep to good jokes for those you know and trust and share your view of the world. And probably better to show and appreciate humour out of the workplace rather than in it. Funny, isn’t it?

About the Author

Adrian FurhamAdrian Furnham is Professor of Psychology at the Norwegian Business School, and frequently in trouble for his humour. He acknowledges the research work and writings of Willibald Ruch and Glenn Wilson for his understanding of the topic.


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