Episode 34: Make them laugh - women, men, and humor at the office

February 10, 2014

"Women aren’t supposed to be funny, but men are. And both men and women are prepared to laugh at men, but very few men seem to be prepared to laugh at women’s jokes." - Judith Baxter

Judith BaxterIn what I hope will be the first of several shows on language and communication, we're looking at humor as a leadership trait. I've always thought of humor as a great way to break the ice or keep things bearable in an otherwise boring or stressful work environment. But it turns out if you're a senior woman in a corporation, the use of humor can be fraught with unintended consequences, few of them funny. Always a devotee of the self-deprecating joke, I was surprised to learn from my guest, professor of linguistics Judith Baxter, that these self-directed barbs don't go down well when women deploy them in board meetings. Tune into the show to find out what happens when senior men and women use banter or otherwise joke around. Ponder why this form of office communication works for men, but not their female counterparts. And laugh. Or grit your teeth, depending on your level of frustration. (Full show transcript below.)

10 minutes.

If these experiences ring true, or false, do leave a comment below.

Show notes: Here's a blog post I wrote recently about 'double voice discourse', one of Judith Baxter's other areas of expertise (I bet you've used it).

This piece about Judith and her research - and the humor consultancy we mentioned - appears on The Glass Hammer website.

If you haven't yet read it, I highly recommend Tina Fey's book Bossypants. It's not only hilarious but has recommendations about dealing with difficult people and situations in the workplace - even a workplace devoted to crafting jokes.  


Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time on the show, you’ve heard it before – women aren’t funny – or at least not as hilarious as men. I talk to a linguist who has studied the way senior women and men use humor in the workplace…

“Men were using it more often and were using it in a way that produced a laugh whereas when women used it, less often, they often didn’t get a laugh.”

In fact 80 percent of their jokes fell flat. Keep listening to find out why. 

Judith Baxter is a professor of applied linguists at Aston University in England. I first read about her work on language and gender more than a year ago. I was fascinated by it because our use of language in the workplace is one of those things most of us don’t think about – yet it has a big effect on the way other people perceive us.

Judith and a colleague did their research for their latest study over an 18-month period at seven multinational companies based in the UK. They spent many hours recording and studying the language of senior men and women while they were conducting high-level meetings.  Judith and I spoke on Skype.

“As I believe language is one of the main ways in which we construct our identities in the workplace, I just wanted to find out if there was something happening in a meeting – um, people spend so long in meetings, some managers are in meetings nearly all day. So it’s obviously a key experience for them, so I went in wanting to analyze the language they use.”

And what she found was that men joked more than women – and their use of humor was more successful…

“In that they were using humor in a more crafted and professional way to manage people, whereas the women were perhaps less easy with using humor, and often there were cases of humor going wrong when the women used it. Men were using it more often and in way that produced a laugh. Whereas when women used it…less often, they often didn’t get a laugh from others round the room, so I was quite interested in knowing why that was the case.”

AM-T: Yeah. Well when you say men were using it in a sort of…they were more deft in their use of humor…give me an example.

“It would be a case of using humor if a colleague was difficult. If conflict was brewing, a male leader would often use humor to banter with the person being difficult - you’d have a running gag or sequence of witticisms going through the discussion, where very often the male manager was joking with the person being difficult, and it would diffuse the situation and people ended up laughing rather than disagreeing with eachother. To me that was a very skilled use of language to get a positive outcome with a difficult colleague.”

AM-T: But what about with women then – how did you see it backfire with women?

“Well I do believe that men and women can use humor in exactly the same ways, but when it’s a situation where women are in the minority women, I think women tend to feel a bit more defensive, less relaxed, less self assured in that situation, and therefore humor doesn’t come quite so naturally to them. When they did use humor it tended to be quite self deprecating, in the sense of they would turn the humor against themselves and mock themselves, rather than what the men did, which was to mock other people. So men were happy to tease or kind of use jocular abuse against other colleagues, whereas women tended not to do that or they did it at their peril. When they did do it, it often didn’t work.”

And this self-deprecating humor didn’t go down well much of the time. Which struck me as odd, because as a woman I’m very familiar with self-deprecation. Nearly all women use it. And we like it, because as Judith says, it makes us seem approachable.

“If you criticize yourself or mock yourself, then you are less of a threat to other people. So if women are a threat to men in that kind of context, and some women think they are, one of the ways they can dilute that threat is to have a joke at their own expense…it’s much more high risk to joke at someone else’s expense because you can’t be sure anyone’s going to laugh at that and it could be seen as insulting, but if they make a joke at own expense then no one else is losing face. So it seems to me it’s done as a means of saying look I’m not threatening, I’m somebody that you can get on with, you don’t have to worry about me.”

That kind of humor may work in a group of women, but remember if a senior woman was leading a meeting Judith was observing she was still in a minority in the room – there was about an 80/20 split of men to women. And in a meeting that was made up largely of men, the tactic of making fun of herself often flopped, and the woman came across as needy or defensive.

Judith found that at these high-level meetings, more than 80 percent of women’s jokes were met with silence. Meanwhile 90 percent of men’s jokes got instant laugher or approval. Why?

“Well I think this is a lot to do with cultural assumptions about who is funny in our western society – in the sense that traditionally men are the ones who are the comics, who make the jokes, on stage, etc. and women are meant to be a supportive audience who laugh at the jokes…culturally there are still very few examples of women as standup comics for example, and very few role models of women who are funny, whereas there are dozens and dozens of men who do that very well. So I think it’s about the fact that women aren’t supposed to be funny, but men are – and both men and women are prepared to laugh at men, but very few men seem to be prepared to laugh at women’s jokes – they’ll laugh at women but not with women.”

Judith found things changed a lot when she looked at humor among middle managers. In those cases the gender distribution in the room was much more equal.

There were many more women at that level, and men and women were using humor in similar ways. She says the women felt much more comfortable in that situation, and they got more laughs.

But what about the fact men joke around in meetings more than women, especially with other men…

“I think men do it as a form of bonding, perhaps they don’t get the same opportunities to go and have a chat over coffee as women do. Women find these sort of moments to connect with eachother socially whereas I think men in the workplace tend to do that less so, so humor is their kind of way of bonding with eachother in these more public situations.”

And it turns out some companies in the US take humor very seriously. They want to encourage bonding between company and client – all through a few laughs. And they’re prepared to pay for it…

AM-T: “I was just floored and amused to learn that here in the States on the west coast, there’s actually a consultancy that ‘teaches businesses how to employ humor in order to make a more genuine, human connection with their clients,’ and I thought, ‘God, how American, you know that there’s actually a consultancy that teaches companies how to be funny.”

“That is interesting. I mean humor is just another resource for doing leadership. If you think of leadership being about the way we speak and interact primarily, There’s a whole range of ways we can use language to be incredibly effective and influential – and humor is just part of the toolkit. So I can understand that. I mean I think it’s probably harder to teach people to be funny, but there are things you can encourage people to do. It’s a mindset really, if you can change people’s mindset about humor and why we use it…then perhaps people will use it in more productive ways.”

Judith Baxter.  You can read more about Judith’s work and some of her other findings on the way women use language at the Broadly Speaking blog at The Broad Experience.com. Ever heard of double-voice discourse? You’ll probably recognize it when you read about it. It turns out women use this second-guessing speech tactic four times as much as men.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. You’ll find a few show notes under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com. Feel free to comment there and on the show’s Facebook page.

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I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.