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Humour – icebreaker or deal-breaker?

When is humour appropriate?

Humour is part of life. We’ve all come across the office clown, that guy (or girl) who lightens the day with a witty remark or two. But how far should this go before it has the opposite effect?

There is no doubt that humour can be a great way to break the ice. But be careful; consider your audience, and how they might receive it. if you are overstepping boundaries, be very sure of your ground. One woman, who was a manager in a male-dominated engineering company, was regularly subjected to sexist and belittling remarks from one of the louder, long-established male employees, which she generally ignored. The day came when he shouted something outrageous across the whole open-plan office and instead of walking out of the room, she turned towards him. As he stood there grinning, everyone was riveted to see how she would react. Very calmly and slowly, she said ‘I bet you wish your d*** was as big as your mouth’. The whole room of people collapsed including the man concerned. She never had any problems with him again. Luckily, when finally meeting his match in a way he appreciated he responded well. But would that work in any situation you have been in?

Clients are a different matter. Throw foreign clients into the mix and you can have the makings of an international incident. Take your cue from them, and preferably read up on their culture and office etiquette beforehand. There’s a good resource here packed with essential information and background to many countries’ culture and business etiquette. Read it carefully – a badly-judged remark could make the difference between a contract and an early flight home.

Humour is not always appropriate at work
Copyright: giuliofornasar / 123RF Stock Photo

Humour vs. warmth

There is no need to be stiffly formal though, unless the situation really demands it. A smile is the best language there is, and can help to immediately lower barriers. Even a wry smile in apology or acknowledgement might be better than saying something and trying to be witty. Humour is highly personal and what is screamingly funny to one person can be awkwardly offensive to another for reasons of personal taste if nothing else. Most Europeans can speak pretty good English but words can get lost in translation, or interpretation. And a barely-disguised-as-a-joke derogatory remark against someone local might refer to someone whose brother or partner is within earshot. You’ve dug your own grave, now you will have to lie in it.

Warmth is okay but again, be careful how far you take it. A stranger invading another’s personal space, physical contact and invasive questions about a person’s family might just be enough to ruin things. This is especially important when dealing with contacts who are culturally different so do your research carefully.

Not so funny

Some situations, like the one described at the start, call for humour to diffuse a possibly tricky or embarrassing situation. As someone said to me once, ‘if someone breaks wind noisily it’s funny, whoever does it’. It’s all a question of context, circumstances and not overdoing it.

But larking around instead of working is a complicated although swift way of handing in your notice. Or you might getting a transfer to a distant outpost (if not on the moon, it might as well be) or being struck off a list of possible freelancers. There is a desperate air about someone who messes around in the name of humour to get colleagues or prospects on side. Businesses are meritocracies and whether freelance or employee, you have a job to do that must be done competently and on time. Compromise that, and attempts at humour will grease the already slippery slide towards the door marked ‘exit’.

Who’s laughing now?




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