As David Brent taught us, office banter is a bad idea. So why is humour on the syllabus at Stanford Business School? Emma Broomfield has a masterclass with the experts who claim funny gets you promoted.
How would you feel if a work colleague suggested you go on a masterclass run by two lecturers in comedy to improve your sense of humour? I can tell you how I feel … crushed.
That evening I ask my other half if he thinks I'm funny. He looks down, then to the left and says: "Of course." Then I text my best friend. Then my brother. And his wife. "Course you are," they reassure me. What else could they say? I consider doorstepping the neighbours ("Knock, knock. Who's there?"), but that seems a bit needy during a pandemic. And anyway, I've already made up my mind. Some people just aren't funny and I'm one of them. That's the way it is and there's nothing that can be done about it.
It turns out I'm not alone in that belief — the idea that you can't learn to be funny is incredibly common. Yet, according to Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, Stanford lecturers and experts on the subject, humour is not something you are either born with or you aren't. Rather, it's a muscle you can strengthen. What's more, finding the funny side makes us appear more competent and confident, strengthens relationships, unlocks creativity, boosts our resilience and, very simply, makes us more likeable.
Tell that to anyone who has had the misfortune to share an office with a real-life David Brent. Ricky Gervais's portrayal of a mid-level manager at the Slough branch of Wernham Hogg paper merchants was such a huge success because it struck a chord. Brent's asides to camera — "When people say to me: would you rather be thought of as a funny man or a great boss? My answer's always the same, to me, they're not mutually exclusive" — are excruciating, but we all know someone with Brentian tendencies. We've all been traumatised by The Office. The thought of attempting to be funny and failing is too hideous to contemplate. Safer just to play it safe and serious.
Not so, insist Aaker and Bagdonas. A 2015 survey of hundreds of top executives revealed that 98 per cent preferred employees with a sense of humour. Jokers, it appears, get promoted. This undoubtedly explains why future masters of the universe are now eagerly signing up for the humour course taught by Aaker and Bagdonas at Stanford's Graduate School of Business. It also explains why the two academics have distilled it into their new book, Humour, Seriously. They have agreed to teach me how to find my funny bones, so I too will rule the world.
My first interaction with the pair is over email and, as you would hope, they are very amusing. Not gag-a-minute, try-hard funny, but the type of subtle humour that is witty and warm. They begin by setting me a lengthy questionnaire about what I find funny, what I don't and how I attempt to make others laugh. The results, to be discussed in a video call, will apparently reveal my humour type … if I have one.
In our first Zoom call, Aaker, an expert in social psychology, begins by explaining how many of us leave humour behind when we arrive at adulthood. A four-year-old laughs up to 300 times a day. A 40-year-old takes ten weeks to laugh as much. It's only when we reach retirement that we start to find things amusing again.
Next we discuss the common misconceptions that stop many of us in our comedy tracks. The first, Aaker says, is the belief that humour has no place at work in the first place. We worry about harming our credibility and not being taken seriously, but 84 per cent of bosses believe that employees with a sense of humour do better work. If you're in sales, this is particularly pertinent: "Research shows that for some items people are willing to pay 18 per cent higher than the purchase price if the seller tells a joke," Aaker says. Beware the estate agent with a GSOH.
Then there is the idea that it is too risky to unleash your humour in the work environment — that your big line will be greeted by deafening silence or, worse, by a colleague taking offence. But just because your one-liner doesn't make everyone fall about in hysterics, that doesn't make it a failure, Bagdonas argues. The key thing is to show that you're having a go.
Third, we have my own particular nemesis: the belief that in order to use humour and levity in the workplace, you have to "be funny" in the first place. Not necessarily, Bagdonas says. In fact, it's far more important to show you have a sense of humour, but just leave the gags to those who feel more comfortable making them.
One survey by the analytics firm Gallup found that managers with a sense of humour, regardless of whether they themselves were funny, were rated by subordinates as 23 per cent more respected, 25 per cent more pleasant to work with and 17 per cent friendlier. You don't have to be funny. You have to create a culture where the funnymen (and women) can stretch themselves. You have to be in on the joke. Or, alarmingly, as David Brent put it: "I've created an atmosphere where I'm a friend first and a boss second. Probably an entertainer third."
There are, Aaker and Bagdonas explain, four primary styles of humour. There is the Stand-up (ruffles feathers, loves an audience), the Sweetheart (gentle, uplifting humour), the Magnet (an animated crowd-pleaser) and the Sniper (sarcastic, edgy and more interested in a one-liner than having friends).
"Ricky Gervais is definitely a Stand-up, both literally and stylistically — he's constantly making jabs, taking shots," Aaker says . "Somebody like Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who has a wry, offbeat and observational, wallflower style — she lands as a Sniper, perhaps with a side of Sweetheart. She's very sensitive and perceptive. She's capable of saying things that are just withering, although often directed at herself. Miranda Hart is a true Sweetheart. And then James Corden is your classic Magnet."
What, though, am I? Before all this began I would have assumed I was none of the above. Now I've been informed anyone can be funny, I'm hoping for Sweetheart or Magnet. Alas, my survey results have come back and I am majority Sniper. My humour is "an acquired taste", "leaning towards dry and sarcastic", with "a belief there are no off-limit topics".
"The downside is that if you don't have a high level of trust with the people you're making the joke with, you might run the risk of producing higher levels of perceived conflict and more misunderstanding," Bagdonas says. "You just have to be conscientious in picking your shots. Or activating some of your other humour styles when the situation calls for it."
If I'm going to broaden my range, I'll need some tips — and the lecturers have these in abundance. In researching their course, they have quizzed everyone from the Saturday Night Live writers to the former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright. At all levels of smooth operator, the same basic rules apply.
"The lowest bar for humour is just naming what is true," Bagdonas says. "People will laugh at a simple observation because you have acknowledged something that's real, so mine your life for truth and incongruity." Maybe you're a CEO at work but the PA to your teenage daughters at home. Maybe the vending machine at the gym sells only Coke and Monster Munch. Maybe you just hate fully grown men on scooters.
Every joke follows the fundamental structure of set-up and punchline. The set-up is the observation or truth, the punchline is what surprises audiences by flipping expectations. "Think of it as massaging your idea a bit to cross the line," Aaker says. The most obvious techniques are exaggerating or applying the rule of three, where you list two normal elements and then add an unexpected third one — a curveball, you might say. The classic example of "A … B … stung me" is the most basic. The acclaimed stand-up and actress Amy Schumer does it much better, opening a show in Denver in 2017 with: "Thank you so much for coming out. This is such a big deal for me. I don't know if you guys know this, but this past year I've gotten very rich, famous and humble."
Bagdonas has her own favourite techniques. "I use callbacks all the time at conferences," she says. "I'll listen to the person who speaks before me and whatever caused a laugh is the first thing I'll make reference to. Maybe it's a tech conference and the clicker doesn't work. It's about the here and now, it warms people up because we now have an inside joke together."
She has been honing her delivery skills by performing improvisational comedy on stage for a decade, but promises there is a melody and a rhythm to good comedy that even amateurs can pick up — pausing before the punchline or repeating it for extra impact, for instance. You could even act it out or do some voices if you're feeling that way inclined. Voices? Not in a million years, I think to myself. They're not compulsory, she says. And remember: the goal isn't to elicit raucous laughter from your co-workers. You're just trying to create a connection beyond generic platitudes.
Hands up if you've ever started an email with: "I hope this note finds you well." I admit to Aaker and Bagdonas that I have used it and they visibly wince. It's not as bad as wanting to "circle back" or "touch base with" or "zero in on some virtual face-to-face", but hoping a note finds you well is generic, robotic, not funny. Their revolutionary advice to combat this? Consider talking like a human instead. And if in doubt, read your emails aloud and check if they rank "five or above on a scale of one to soul-crushing".
They also suggest a creative sign-off to break the monotony. They see my "With very best wishes" and raise it with "Yours, heavily caffeinated". And so on. They even suggest making your out-of-office reply funny — though personally that's too much for me.
Humour has been proven to enhance creativity — research shows that people who watch a funny video before trying to solve a puzzle are twice as likely to be successful. Aaker recommends starting a meeting with a Bad Idea Brainstorm. You ask your team for the silliest, wildest and worst possible ideas they can think of. When laughter hopefully follows, it creates space for new solutions.
So convinced are they of the power of humour that Aaker and Bagdonas also advocate its ability to get people out of sticky situations. Learning to laugh at our mistakes can have a positive impact on our psychology. It takes off the pressure. You won't beat yourself up for so long. And if you show colleagues you aren't afraid to laugh at your own screw-ups, they'll feel safer owning up to theirs.
This is all quite persuasive stuff, but we can't laugh our way out of everything. My biggest fear as I prepare to unleash my newly emboldened sense of humour on unsuspecting colleagues is that I will end up in an impromptu meeting with HR. They've told me I'm a Sniper, remember. "What we find funny — or appropriate — is far from universal," Aaker admits. "There are a whole lot of grey areas when it comes to humour. If you're not sure where the line is, try out your humour with a small team — a safe circle of trusted testers." It still feels risky.
If you do miss the mark, then own it. Recovering from a humour fail is a three-step process. The first is simply to recognise that it happened. Second, you need to diagnose what went wrong and, finally, you need to rectify it. Apologise and learn from it.
"What's hard is that as you get higher in status, people will laugh at your jokes regardless of whether they're appropriate or not, because humour and status are so intertwined," says Bagdonas. "The risk is that as the culture shifts, what's appropriate shifts — yet you're not getting reliable feedback." We can call this the David Brent trap.
A couple of weeks pass before I speak to Aaker and Bagdonas again. During that time I've been thinking about the wider implications of their teachings. Surely it's easier said than done to use humour when the odds are stacked against you? Surely it's understandable that a female chief executive in a male-dominated industry might not want to use humour in case it undermines the position she's worked so hard for? Aaker agrees: "Why would you risk how far you've come? And it's a very real risk."
Bagdonas believes the narrative needs to change earlier on to level that particular playing field. "Little girls aren't really celebrated for being funny. As a former class clown, I can tell you I wasn't celebrated. And it leads to this misconception that women need to be austere and buttoned-up to be respected and successful in a work environment."
Though they have been careful in their book to make their findings universally applicable, I suggest they'll need to write a follow-up to cover British humour. It is, after all, so different from (better than) its American counterpart. For instance, in the US version of The Office, the character of Michael Scott — the equivalent of David Brent — was changed to become less sarcastic after viewers failed to warm to him in the first series. Bagdonas isn't sure the same thing would happen today: "That stereotype is becoming increasingly outdated. The world is smaller than it ever has been and cultural differences are less of a barrier than they used to be."
In the days following my masterclass, I try to gauge whether my work/humour balance has changed. I like to think my email game has improved — less waffle and the occasional LOL. Callbacks to previous conversations have certainly warmed up frosty phone calls. And I've quietened my inner critic over worries about not being funny. I'm realistic. I'm not the office entertainer, but I can share a joke and that's enough. I laugh loudly, for example, when an email drops into my inbox congratulating me on my honorary MBA from Stanford. I have a master's in comedy. Now all I need to do is add it to my LinkedIn profile. And I'm only half joking.
Which joker are you?
Positive and warm humour; charismatic and animated delivery; laughs easily. (Classic example: James Corden)
Optimistic and uplifting humour; reluctant to hurt feelings; tends to keep it all PG (Miranda Hart)
Comes alive in front of an audience; doesn't shy away from controversial humour or swearing (Ricky Gervais)
Sarcastic, edgy and often dark humour; unafraid to cross the line; delivery is understated; great with deadpan zingers and one-liners (Phoebe Waller-Bridge)
Use wit to get what you want
A quick lesson from the Stanford humour experts
Making an ask is hard. Making an ask and getting a yes is even harder. If you want something from someone, chances are that your ask isn't the only one in their metaphorical inbox. Now, we're sure you've heard the advice that when making an ask, it pays to offer them something of value: knowledge, a fancy fruit basket, your pet frog, whatever. Believe it or not, a laugh might be just the thing. Giving the gift of laughter — or even just a smile — opens them up in ways that heirloom papaya from Belize can't.
This principle holds just as true when you've already made the ask and it's time for a nudge. You've likely experienced that mild sense of self-loathing that bubbles up when sending emails that start with lines such as: "Hi, just following up on . . .", "Hey there, just checking on the status of . . ." or "Sorry to nudge, but . . ." It can be painful for both sides. But it doesn't have to be. A while back, an interviewee of ours, Rebecca, got ghosted. Not in the dating app sense, but in a sense that was more financially problematic. She had recently done some freelance work for a former colleague and her invoice had gone unpaid for months. So she sent a reminder. Crickets. She nudged, politely, via both email and text. No reply. After months of no contact, she texted the former colleague a single image (above). Where multiple heartfelt entreaties had failed, a cute (desperate) cat and some Adele lyrics saved the day. The woman replied in a matter of minutes, and a few weeks later the money was in Rebecca's account.
Humour in numbers
• 98% of top executives prefer employees with a sense of humour and 84 per cent believe these employees do better work
• 300 Number of times a four-year-old child laughs every day, but it takes an average 40-year-old ten weeks to laugh as much
• 23% Boost in respect managers receive from staff when they show a sense of humour, regardless of whether they are actually funny
• 18% Increase on the original purchase price for an item people are willing to pay if the seller tells them a joke
Written by: Emma Broomfield
© The Times of London