Study's Punch Line: Humor at the Office is Serious Business

Joking at Work. (Image credit: dreamstime)

Kidding around at work is commonly thought of as perilous, as the hit sitcom "The Office" often explores to wincing extremes.

Now intense research finds light humor at work is a good thing.

In their study, "The Case for Developing New Research on Humor and Culture in Organizations: Toward a Higher Grade of Manure," researchers analyzed theories on humor, emotion and mood from several hundred studies in the fields of psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy and communications.

"There's an Ernest Hemingway quote we relied on for our title—'It always seemed to me that in those who make jokes in life the seeds are covered with better soil and with a higher grade of manure,'" said researcher Chris Robert, a psychologist at the University of Missouri at Columbia. "The double entendre there is that people who use humor may be, well, full of it, but there's a positive side as well."

The researchers make the case that humor is serious business.

"It's not just clowning around and having fun. It has meaningful impact on cohesiveness in the workplace and communication quality among workers," Robert said. "The ability to appreciate humor, the ability to laugh and make other people laugh actually has physiological effects on the body that cause people to become more bonded."

Job jokes

The researchers noted many studies found that humor—particularly joking around concerning things associated with the job— actually has a positive impact in the workplace. Occasional humor among colleagues enhances creativity, department cohesiveness and overall performance, they said.

The investigators also outlined the current thinking concerning the psychological foundation of humor and developed specific predictions about how humor might affect organizations.

Robert and colleague Wan Yan noted that humor is difficult across cultures, such as between the United States and Asian economic powerhouses China and India.

In such cross-cultural situations, which arise commonly in multinational organizations, "it's hard to know what's going to be funny or when to use humor," Robert said. "Some people have suggested that you just avoid it all together—don't be funny, don't try to make jokes. We basically reject that."

Cross-culture how-to

To carry jokes across cultures, Robert suggested finding common ground.

"The most accepted theory of humor is incongruity theory—that people find things funny when you take two things and you connect them in an unexpected way," he said. "Humor doesn't work when you don't share expectations."

If you do use humor across cultures and in the workplace, "often the very work you're doing provides common expectations you can build on—customers, clients, coworkers, yourself, suppliers, the building you're working in," Robert said. "Or there are general human experiences, like funny things kids say, that almost anyone can share. Where people get into trouble is stepping on expectations, such as with religion, ethnicity or other values."

Of course, attempts at humor can go too far.

"The show 'The Office' regularly explores extreme cases of something that obviously happens in everyday life—you have people who try too hard," Robert said. "You shouldn't blame the messenger there, the humor, though—you should blame the person."

Sexist humor, while perhaps meant in good fun, can also promote discrimination against women, separate research recently showed.

Robert and Yan published their findings as a chapter in the 2007 edition of "Research in Personnel and Human Resources Management" (Elsevier).

Charles Q. Choi
Live Science Contributor
Charles Q. Choi is a contributing writer for Live Science and He covers all things human origins and astronomy as well as physics, animals and general science topics. Charles has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Missouri-Columbia, School of Journalism and a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of South Florida. Charles has visited every continent on Earth, drinking rancid yak butter tea in Lhasa, snorkeling with sea lions in the Galapagos and even climbing an iceberg in Antarctica.