Can you be funny at work?

Fortunately, Liz Lemon, (Tina Fey) was paid to be funny at work on <i>30 Rock</i>.

Fortunately, Liz Lemon, (Tina Fey) was paid to be funny at work on 30 Rock. Photo: NBC

At the turn of this century, I read an article in a women’s magazine, ‘Can You Be Too You at Work?’ the instructions of which included keeping jokes to a minimum in the office. Being young and cocky, I pinned it up at my desk, a knowing wink, (so I thought) to my co-workers that I knew what they knew: imitating the girl from The Ring by flipping all of my hair over my face and jumping on their desks, or, alternatively, belting out the Star Spangled Banner, Mariah Carey-style, in the middle of the office floor weren’t doing me any favours. Well, they were doing me some favours – a few people laughed. And because this was my first job out of university, it felt perfectly appropriate to treat the office as my one-woman show.

Unfortunately my boss did not agree with me. At the time I wondered if, as an introvert, she was ‘threatened’ by my showbiz flair but now I look back and see ... she was right. The fall-out was that she never took me seriously and eventually I had to leave.

But the casualisation of the office in the last 15 years or so, (including the rise of email and remote working) has changed how we relate to one another.

David Brent, (Ricky Gervais) displaying the David Brent Syndrome in a dance on <i>The Office</i>.

David Brent, (Ricky Gervais) displaying the David Brent Syndrome in a dance on The Office.

‘We have allowed ourselves to relax our interpersonal rules, with workplaces becoming less driven by hierarchical protocols,’ says corporate psychologist Stephanie Thompson.


‘[The office] became so dynamic, competitive and greedy for workers’ time, people were quite miserable at work. Humanisation of work cultures has been essential to bringing the enjoyment back.’

Now none of this, I’ve since learned, should be taken as a green light for office cabaret. But playing the joker is now allegedly beneficial. As Facebook COO and corporate feminist idol Sheryl Sandberg says in her book, Lean In,

Humour can be an amazing tool for delivering an honest message in a good-natured way. A recent study even found that “sense of humour” was the phrase most frequently used to describe the most effective leaders.  

But what’s good for the boss may not be good for the business. Says Thompson, ‘Data shows that extroverts - the jokers - tend to be less diligent than introverts, who are more likely to focus on doing careful, quality work.’

Look, I don’t want to come off as defensive or anything but I’ve met plenty of introverts who hid behind a mute face of general disapproval to mask the fact that they were bludging. Besides, a binary understanding of ‘funny types’ belies the fact that not all jokers are extroverts. And not all extroverts are funny.

Take for example the first time all of us cynical, snide writer types got together with the advertising sales department for drinks. We experienced a slight disconnect: their extroverted humour involved pranks and gags while our humour focused on one major motif: the eye roll.  The sales people were too broad for us; we were too snobby for them. The more meetings we had together, the more I saw that sales people laughed harder at sales jokes and writers laughed harder at ... scathing criticism. The rule about every office having its own rules proved true, and, as Thompson points out, the idea of what’s funny is often set down by who is in charge.

‘Because the boss largely defines the culture of a team, it may be important to fit in with that to some degree,’ she says, adding that context and appropriateness are key. ‘If others take you aside to have a stern word about your ill-judged quip, don’t just brush it off as their stuffy humourlessness.’ 

Ah yes! The David Brent Syndrome, as expertly demonstrated by Ricky Gervais throughout the UK series The Office. Sure, you’re doing stand up once a month at Open Mic Nights but anyone within earshot is inwardly groaning every time you open your mouth. This is apparently worse for everyone if you’re male as men are more likely to believe they are funnier than they are. And because more men than women occupy leadership roles, that can add up to a lot of fake laughing from employees, making work as exhausting as a place devoid of any humour at all.




See, funny isn’t funny if you don’t have self-awareness and a sensitivity toward others. For instance, if  you’ve ever said ‘It was just a joke!’ or, ‘Come on, that was funny’ then you can take that as a sign your gags aren’t landing the way you think they are.

But everyone enjoys a laugh, (which has a proven positive effect on morale) and as Sandberg points out in her book, it’s a great way to defuse anxiety. It might be worth noting though, that while everyone likes a clown, they like someone who fits in even more. So the issue is not ‘can you be funny’ but rather ‘can you be funny in a way that appeals to your boss, your co-workers and anyone else you liaise with?’ If you answered yes to just one of these, then -- you should probably keep your mouth shut.
















39 comments so far

  • Short

    Long answer: Someone is bound to take offence at anything you say that isn't directly related to work. The rule of work is shut up, talk about work and work only and don't get overly friendly with the people there. You're stuck with them to get business done, not to be friends. Sure, it drives some people neurotic with the lack of humanity, but that's what you end up with when everyone is offended by everything.

    Tim the Toolman
    Date and time
    July 10, 2013, 10:09AM
    • Wow - what a workplace. We have a saying at our office. We actively tell our new starters during the induction. The saying is - "It's OK to laugh at (name of our firm)"

      Best thing we ever did

      Date and time
      July 10, 2013, 11:42AM
    • It really depends where you work. The best idea is to get a feeling of what everyone is like. The last place where I worked, I felt comfortable talking and joking around with nearly all the people. And it doesn't matter when you say non-PC stuff.

      Same as where I work now. At the moment it's only with 3 other guys, and it's blood great! We all just say whatever we want, and we know that no one else will care. We dread the day someone 'sensitive' comes in and we can't say and do the things we currently do.

      Date and time
      July 10, 2013, 11:53AM
    • Nowadays pretty much anytime you make a joke you run the risk of offendng someone or other and getting dragged off by HR. Sure most of the time it would be ok but you only have to get it wrong once to screw up your career and so a lot of people decide it's just not worth it.

      The joys of the political correctness police (HR)...

      Date and time
      July 10, 2013, 11:56AM
    • @Tim, Hurrow - completely agree.

      No matter how much your colleagues claim to be your friend, they're not. You work together, that's it. Don't try to make more of work than what it is.

      sooty kettle
      Date and time
      July 10, 2013, 12:27PM
    • @Tim, maybe the type of humour you find funny is offensive to some.

      Date and time
      July 10, 2013, 3:12PM
    • "maybe the type of humour you find funny is offensive to some."

      Well, yes, that's my point. All humour is potentially offensive, including what I find funny.

      Tim the Toolman
      Date and time
      July 10, 2013, 3:37PM
    • Jezz that is the point, absolutely anything one person could find funny could be found outright offensive by another. And you can never be certain who or what exactly it may be until it happens.

      By the time you get to finding something that is 100% guaranteed to not offend anybody, you are left with something that is no longer even humourous.

      Date and time
      July 10, 2013, 3:55PM
    • Actually you know what is funny Jezz - the irony in your statement.

      sooty kettle
      Date and time
      July 11, 2013, 9:43AM
  • Disagree.
    I think as long as you set boundaries, particularly with your coworkers, and take into account that some people don't like joking around - then OF COURSE you can have a fun-filled work environment.
    I work in a library - often described as a 'shush-dom'.
    I tease our cataloguer, who is painfully shy, about hidden full body tats and where his band (imaginary) played on the weekend. He laughs more and has started being a chatty member of our team.
    I also taught some of our students how to moonwalk as their constant studying was giving me a headache. I was requested to emcee their graduation ceremony.
    It's about recognising that workers are PEOPLE. We sometimes spend more time with each other than we do with our partners or our family. Why not enjoy that time?
    And yes, we are still productive and diligent... the books still get shelved even when I'm humming the synthesised 'popcorn' tune.
    Laughter has been proven to be beneficial to our health.
    As long as it's not at anyone's expense in a cruel or discriminatory way... go forth and giggle!

    Date and time
    July 10, 2013, 10:54AM

    More comments

    Make a comment

    You are logged in as [Logout]

    All information entered below may be published.

    Error: Please enter your screen name.

    Error: Your Screen Name must be less than 255 characters.

    Error: Your Location must be less than 255 characters.

    Error: Please enter your comment.

    Error: Your Message must be less than 300 words.

    Post to

    You need to have read and accepted the Conditions of Use.

    Thank you

    Your comment has been submitted for approval.

    Comments are moderated and are generally published if they are on-topic and not abusive.