Humour in the workplace: What is appropriate? (Guest commentary)

Laughter is only the best medicine if the jokes aren't hurtful

When it comes to humour, there is one basic rule: Anything that excludes, separates people, puts someone down or ridicules others, destroys self-esteem, uses stereotypes of groups, encourages a negative atmosphere, offends others or lacks awareness of others’ feelings, is inappropriate.

Appropriate humour is inclusive. It brings people together. It is shared with all. It decreases prejudice by focusing on the universal human experience. It encourages a positive atmosphere. It builds rapport and trust. It is based on caring and comes from a place of love. It is supportive and builds confidence. It can be self-effacing, role modelling how to poke fun at oneself without being negative or too self-critical.

There is also a distinctive difference in the health benefits of positive and negative humour. Positive humour as outlined above has positive physiological effects on one’s body and mind. Negative humour has not been found to have these same health benefits.

Dealing with negative humour

What should you do when someone at work uses inappropriate humour and you don’t like it? There are several responses open to you depending on the type of person you are or the mood you are in.

The make them think approach: You can ask them to retell the joke or story again using themselves as the main character instead of the person of whatever race, religion, nationality or sex they used in the joke or story. Most will say, “Then it’s not funny” — which is exactly the point.

The direct approach: You can simply state you don’t appreciate that kind of humour and ask that they please not use it in front of you. Reply, “I don’t find that kind of humour amusing.”

The indirect approach: Choose not to laugh or smile at the end of the joke. You may go as far as putting on an angry face if that’s how you feel.

The educational approach: You could choose to educate them by explaining the differences outlined above between inclusive and exclusive humour. This will permit them a face-saving response. You could say something like, “I’m sure if you were aware of how mean-spirited that joke makes you sound, you wouldn’t use it.”

Any of these responses could be done privately or in a group. The peer pressure of a group would have a stronger impact on the person and let others know how you feel about offensive humour at the same time.

Most people offend others and tell poor jokes out of ignorance. Everyone has different tastes in humour just like they do with food. What is offensive to some is funny to others.

In certain professions there is gallows humour and other types the general public would not understand. This really serves a healthy purpose as a coping mechanism in stressful workplaces such as an emergency room or law enforcement.

David Jacobson is a Tucson, Ariz.-based speaker specializing in humour and health and author of The 7 1/2 Habits of Highly Humorous People. For more information visit or call (520) 982-6868.

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