Opinion: When workplace humour crosses the line

Humour plays a critical role in the workplace. However, a line is crossed when that humour violates the most basic human value: that of acknowledging, respecting and validating people’s differences.

Humour plays a critical role in the workplace. However, a line is crossed when that humour violates the most basic human value: that of acknowledging, respecting and validating people’s differences, as Snéha Khilay writes.

An increasing emphasis on the value of inclusive language in the workplace has brought about an inherent realisation that the words we use are open to scrutiny. We are more mindful of how we express ourselves, aware that we are monitored by others. However, those examining the appropriateness of our words often get daubed as the ‘language police’ and it is worth reminding ourselves that these colleagues are simply trying to raise awareness of alternative (and appropriate) language and thereby effect change.

I recently attended a board meeting as an observer, whereby we were introduced to a new member who would be working closely with the Board Treasurer. Having realised that this new member was Jewish, one of the board members remarked, during the coffee break, that the finances would now definitely be in order. The comment, intended to entertain, was considered funny by the person who had made the comment and reflected by the general reaction of laughter from some people.

However, a couple of people complained, finding the comment to be inappropriate. In response, the person who had made the comment insisted that those who had complained were boring and lacking a sense of humour. Others agreed. Effectively, a veil of benign amusement was draped over those who had raised concerns and in essence, labelled as tiresome. The idea of detracting fun from a situation deemed amusing prompted an antagonism towards those who did not find the comments to be suitable or even necessary.

It is known that the human brain can interpret things through two different ‘filters’, characterised as serious and humorous. In humorous mode, characterised by the positive emotion of amusement and the tendency to laugh, rationality is suspended in the name of fun where a relaxed attitude does not process as quickly, whether comments are appropriate or not. Humour attracts attention and admiration, delineates social boundaries which however can cause a divide amongst the listeners between what is acceptable or not. Whichever way they are intended, discriminatory comments mould perception, creating a reality from an illusion and in turn producing a culture that is tolerant of hostility and discrimination. This reality is sometimes debated by people insisting that there is no malice intended in such comments and that there should be a light-hearted receptiveness to humour in the workplace.

However, the significant factor about the concept of benign amusement is that it negates the imputed stereotype behind the humour, and at times such humour against individuals or groups can act as a mask for disdain and anger. For example, according to recent studies, making and appreciating sexist jokes is a tacit consent to sexual discrimination, in a context in which the listener’s reaction is not dictated by social norms as it is veiled by humour.

The ability to recognise and reflect on the impact of humour is a sign of awareness and personal growth. As society develops, it is important to remember that we are all free to express our opinions on what is and is not acceptable. There is plenty to laugh at in the world without violating the most basic human value: that of acknowledging, respecting and validating people’s differences.

“Humour is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humour; a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit.” – Aristotle
 
About the author
Inspired by the quote ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ (Gandhi), Snéha Khilay, Director of Blue Tulip Training, is a specialist diversity and leadership consultant/ trainer working in the UK and internationally. She has provided training and consultancy support to a wide range of organisations over the past 20 years. She has advised Board Members, CEO, Executive Directors and Senior Managers on how to develop a strategic and operational approach to problem solving, particularly in relation to changing stance on cultural diversity, equality and unconscious bias.
 

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