Public Relations

Save the Humor for Your Friends

Late last month, American Lawyerworkplace columnist Vivia Chen, who is always worth reading for her sharp insights and occasional contrarianism, wrote a column titled,“If You’re a Funny Woman in the Workplace, the Joke’s on You.” Chen pointed to a recent study by researchers at the University of Arizona (my alma mater) and the University of Colorado that concluded that while men can often benefit from deploying humor in the workplace, women will take a serious hit if they do exactly the same thing.

Chen concluded with obvious regret and more than a bit of anger that “even if a woman is fabulously funny and making the work environment more enjoyable, not only will she not be rewarded, she’ll be regarded as a wack job.”

As a PR person who is constantly interacting with other people in person, on the phone and on line and who is constantly urging other people to improve the quality of their own interactions, I read Chen’s article with great interest. 

It’s clear to me that it’s not just in the workplace itself that jokes can be misinterpreted and can lead to misunderstandings, necessary apologies or even career debacles. It’s also true in emails, social media posts and especially in interviews with reporters. What you might find funny, others may find off-putting or offensive. 

Chen’s point, which I agree with, is that when women use humor, many people’s reactions tap into gender stereotypes that hold that women are less serious about work and less likely to be great business leaders. She also argues that if women stay away from humor and play it completely straight, they run the risk of being viewed as “humorless bitches,” fulfilling another, opposite, stereotype.

In my experience, although women do have the worst of it in this situation, humor is just a very hard thing to pull off – for men as well as for women. I’m particularly thinking of conversations with people outside your firm, such as reporters or PR people from other industries. It’s important to know your audience — and in any business setting, telling jokes or even putting on a wry or ironic persona may be considered distracting, rude or disruptive. So it’s best to save the humor and wit for your off hours.