Why Don’t People Laugh at Work?

This is a guest post from Drew Tarvin

When I first started in the corporate world, I didn’t realize how little my fellow employees laughed.  It wasn’t until I started doing corporate stand-up gigs that I noticed the distinct lack of chuckles, giggles, and guffaws in the workplace.  The question is, why is laughter missing?

Stand-Up or Sit Down

After my very first corporate stand-up show, I thought I did terrible.  No one had laughed as much as they did in the comedy clubs, and it didn’t seem like my jokes resonated with the audience.  But after the show, the other comedian I performed with (a veteran on the corporate circuit) congratulated me, saying he was impressed with how well I did.  I chalked it up to him trying to spare my feelings.

But then a number of audience members came up to me after the show, thanking me for performing and even quoting their favorite lines.  I still wouldn’t have believed I had done a good job, but a few months later the same group booked me to do another show–the ultimate sign that they were satisfied with the show (or were sado-masichists).

Over time, I realized it wasn’t just in that show that people weren’t laughing.  I started wondering where all the laughter was in the office.  We spend upwards of 40% of our waking hours at work, shouldn’t it be a little fun?  But that’s not the culture at many places, and as a result, people don’t laugh.  Why?

1) They Think It’s Inappropriate

The biggest reason why most people don’t laugh at work is that for some reason they think it’s inappropriate.  Even if something genuinely funny happens, they are in the “corporate-mode” where everything is “business, business, business” and they refuse to laugh.

The reality is that there are only a few situations where laughter is inappropriate–during the process of layoffs, in the middle of an important company announcement, or after your boss’ rival says a joke.  But during a regular meeting or while reading our email, these are times where we should feel free to laugh if we desire or are inspired to do so.

2) They Fear What Others Think

I thought that people obsessing over what others thought of them would end in High School, but it is ever-present in the corporate world.  And while it is important to consider your image and reputation, many people get caught up in what their peers, managers, and direct reports think of them.

To laugh at something is a revelation of our personality.  It tells others what we think is funny, and that scares people.  If you are in a meeting with your manager and someone makes a joke, the tendency is to check in with your manager to see if she thinks it’s funny–if she laughs, surely it’s OK for you to laugh.  The problem is that your manager is doing the same thing.  She is either checking in with other people in the room, or even back with you–after all, managers are (semi) normal people too, and they have the same insecurities as the rest of us.

3) They Don’t Have Much to Laugh At

The sad reality is that for many employees, they just don’t have much to laugh at during work.  Their training sessions are filled with boring diagrams, monotonous speakers, and they experience death by PowerPoint.  All of their emails are strictly related to work, written as concisely as possible but still filled with useless and definitely unfunny jargon.

Too few of us work to incorporate humor into the workplace.  Perhaps it’s a “chicken and the egg” problem–why would people attempt humor when no one at work will laugh?  But as a result, we hide our true personalities and we soon become an office of boring robots.

4) They Aren’t Used to It

Even when someone tries to attempt humor, there isn’t always a laughter response.  That’s because people aren’t used to it–they aren’t used to having humor at work, or laughing during the hours of 9-5.

Culture plays a large role.  The companies or departments that do have fun and are constantly laughing, actively work to use humor on a consistent basis and people get used to the idea that they can have fun at work.  The oft-cited company Southwest Airlines has made it part of their mission statement to have fun, and from top to bottom employees get used to laughing.

How to Get People to Laugh at Work

An interesting thing happened during the second show I did with the above mentioned group–the laughter was louder and more frequent.  Maybe my material was stronger the second time, or my performance was better.  Or maybe the group was ready to laugh:

  1. They knew it wasn’t inappropriate because it was a stand-up show.
  2. They weren’t afraid because they had already laughed a little bit last time and other people had talked about enjoying the show.
  3. They had something to laugh at (either my material or my failed attempts at humor).
  4. They were used to it from the last show, and the fact that they were having a second one suggested that it was certainly encouraged.

And that’s what it takes to break the stigma against laughing and increase laughter in the workplace.  Creating a culture where people know it’s OK to laugh (and encouraged); throwing unnecessary caution into the wind and laughing at what’s funny; giving co-workers something to laugh at; and doing it consistently.

Drew Tarvin is a stand-up, improv, and sketch humorist and the author of Humor That Works.  You can subscribe to his newsletter or follow him on Twitter @HumorThatWorks.

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In my research on humor in the workplace, I found another blog that gives some great information on how important it is to laugh at work. Michael Kerr of Humour at Work.

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If you are looking to bring some more laughter and smiles into your workplace, then check out the Happy at Work Project and start building your work happiness today.

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Image courtesy of mexikids

Comments

  1. Great guest post, Drew! I’ve never given this much thought before but most people don’t spend a lot of time laughing at work and laughing is such an important part of happiness. I love your suggestions for encouraging laughter at work.

  2. Good stuff.

    I’m a fan of laughing on the job. It only takes on person and it’s contagious.

  3. Thanks for the positive feedback!

    @PositivelyPresent: I definitely didn’t realize it until I did stand-up for the first time, then it quickly became obvious there was a lack of it at work.

    @JD Meier: You are exactly right. If individuals start to incorporate more humor into their work, others will notice and join in. My cubicle row is now known for having fun and bring smiles to faces.

  4. You must be one of those people that people actually like to work with.

    There’s so many issues like gossip, office politics, competition, and all these others things that it just becomes overwhelming. Letting people laugh every now and then is a true blessing and everyone should take part in it at least a few times a day.

  5. Hi Karl: I didn’t notice at first that this was a guest post and I was going to tell you that I had no idea that you did stand-up comedy. :-)

    Hi Drew: You’re so right, there’s very little laughter in the workplace, and it’s a shame because laughter makes you more creative, it makes you enjoy yourself more, and it helps you create a bond with those you laugh with. I’m a big proponent of laughter yoga; that’s one way to get more laughter into the workplace. :-)

  6. I enjoyed this post because the reasons you shared why people don’t laugh also hold them back from authentic expression in many life areas. Thanks goodness there are folks like you out there loosening things up.

  7. @Tim: You’re exactly right. Laughter is a great way to actual improve employee relationships. Joking and having fun is a big sign of support and is definitely needed to combat those issues you mentioned.

    @Marelisa: Don’t you think Karl should try stand-up? I think it would be great. And laughter and humor have a number of great advantages in the workplace: creativity, productivity, workplace satisfaction…

    @Tom: You raise a good point on expression. People aren’t just afraid to laugh, they’re afraid to show honest emotion (happiness, disappointment, etc). Obviously you don’t want to be an emotional wreck at work, but you shouldn’t be a robot.

  8. Hi Drew,

    This was a great article–and a nice companion piece to Karl’s post a few days ago about being weird (in a good way) at work. I’d say that a collective lack of a sense of humour and too much restraint on the occasional bout of silliness/weirdness are probably good indications that the employees in a department– or an entire organization–are likely overworked and overstressed and possibly have found themselves in a culture that is decidedly not emotionally healthy. Then again, maybe it’s just all that dull beige, gray or depressing gray-blue decor that is used far too lavishly in “cubicle cities” that just sucks the joy and life out of people.

    I have some great memories of a colleague and I going into near hysterics laughing when all of our best efforts to be very organized and efficient in terms of getting packages of surveys out were sacrificed on the altar of Murphy’s Law. It was either laugh or cry, so we opted for laughter.

    I’ve seen an ever increasing shift toward too much seriousness and workaholism and an alarming reduction in the amount of authentic laughter about funny or silly occurrences.(Laugher at nasty jokes or that are based on some kind of one-upmanship really doesn’t count as genuine or healing laughter, in my books).

  9. @Sue: Thanks for the comment, and I agree completely. You’re remark on laughter versus crying reminds me of a quote from Kurt Vonnegut:

    “Laughter and tears are both responses to frustration and exhaustion. I myself prefer to laugh, since there is less cleaning up to do afterward.”

    In regards to your observation of going to more seriousness, I think that the tough economic times are causing people to think that they can’t use humor, even though that’s when it’s needed most. I go into more detail in a post called How to Use Humor During a Recession.

  10. This is so true! I have spent 30 years in the corporate security environment. Talk about scared to laugh:I spoke to a group of security professionals once, told a joke and heard crickets! After an uncomfortable pause I said,”Is this an audience or an oil painting!” Needless to say more crickets. Over time however I was elected chairman of the group and they looked forward to my off beat sense of humor. Great Post!

  11. @Ted: Haha, I like the follow-up to the pause with Oil Painting. You’re right, sometimes it takes a little while before people open up. And even if you aren’t getting big laughs, people do appreciate the use of humor, they’re just showing it via smile or laughter on the inside.

  12. Staffing Agency Philippines says:

    Maybe they feel uneasy or unethical. They also in their mind that in work they must be serious at all times. But for me that is disastrous. You may get stressed if you not laugh even for a while.

Trackbacks

  1. [...] corporate world is to suppress laughter.  And as silly as it seems, there are a number of reasons why people don’t laugh at work.  But the use of humor can help change [...]

  2. [...] did a guest post for Karl, titled Why Don’t People Laugh at Work? The post discusses some of the reasons employees are scared to laugh and enjoy themselves in the [...]

  3. [...] into the workplace, you are more likely to elicit smiles than laughter.  Why? Because there is a fear of laughing in the office, and rather than publicly express that an employee finds something funny, they’re more likely [...]

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