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When was the last time you laughed at work?

Some serious insights into workplace humour that lightens our hearts and makes us work collaboratively

A good laugh, once in a while, helps reduce stress and enhance faster bonding between team members.
A good laugh, once in a while, helps reduce stress and enhance faster bonding between team members. (iStock )

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LinkedIn, in their wisdom, ran a survey recently on office humour in India. It threw up an encouraging result, which was also deeply depressing.

The result was encouraging because it said that South Indians are the most humorous people in the offices of our country. Since I am South Indian by birth, this news perked me up immediately. It then depressed me because despite being from the deep south of the country, I have never been humorous. In fact, it takes me considerable effort to even smile, unless someone cracks a Rajinikanth joke, in which case Rajni, the ultimate South Indian, does the impossible and makes me laugh out loud. Thank you, Thalaiva.

Could my lack of humour be because I do not eat curd rice, idlis and sambhar every day? Or, is it because I have replaced filter coffee with Darjeeling tea for my morning cuppa? To help me resolve this matter, I would recommend that LinkedIn do another survey to understand the correlation between daily diets and humour.

Also read: Why do people talk so much during meetings?

What really works

Based on my experience, I am certain of one finding that this survey is likely to throw up. Whatever be the daily diet of office goers, we are likely to be at our most humorous after a good afternoon lunch. Give us great food, and yes, we will laugh for good.

Just the other day, I heard a colleague say that he feels sleepy after lunch because of the nap-kin at the table. Now, this is not such a good or original joke at all. But all of us had just eaten a big lunch of delicious pizza, so we had a nice laugh together, despite the extreme cheesiness of his humour. In fact, having at least one team member with a high humour quotient brings lots of smiles into any team, regardless of food habits. I know a couple of my colleagues who are naturally humorous, and they are good at injecting humour into our meetings at just the right time. Their jokes help to break the ice when a team gets together after a long time, and sometimes the humour also helps defuse a tense situation.

In addition, a good laugh, once in a while, helps reduce stress and enhance faster bonding between team members. If researchers study the composition of winning teams, they may well find that each such team has one or more jokers in the pack.

Of course, if the big boss himself decides to be the lead joker, then we may end up with a serious problem at hand. We know that bosses are not the most humorous of people, though I admit that there may be the rare exception. So, team members must listen very carefully to know if a humorous statement has been made by the boss. Once we identify that such a momentous event has indeed happened, we have to poke each other silently and laugh out loud, because no boss likes his or her joke to land flat. We may even stand the real risk of misinterpreting our boss’ statement, such as when a manager told his young team member to have a good day. The team member promptly went home.

Real humour begins to manifest itself when the boss and other senior people have themselves gone home. This is not just a case of senior hierarchy stifling smiles. The truth is that younger people naturally laugh more. Two researchers at Stanford University, Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas, have written a book called Humour, Seriously: Why Humour Is A Superpower At Work And In Life, where they report on a “humour cliff” in our lives. This 2020 tome is living proof that workplace humour, like digital strategy and supply chain resilience, is an intellectual pursuit worthy of top-notch researchers at Ivy League Universities. So, the LinkedIn humour survey is on the right track. More importantly, the book points out that appalling things keep happening to us as we age. One of these unfortunate things is that we start losing our sense of humour at the age of around 23 years, and then we tumble down the cliff into “the abyss of solemnity below”.

The ‘humour cliff’ 

Therefore, one practical suggestion to keep the humour quotient high is to have young members in every team and encourage them to be humorous. Being humorous in a room with lots of people senior to you requires confidence. The leader has to provide that reassurance to his younger team members, rather than desperately trying to crack his own bad jokes so many years after he has fallen off the humour cliff and broken all his funny bones.

One other aspect that needs attention is the day of the week. That is very important, because research shows that people laugh much more as they approach the weekend. Therefore, to ensure optimal use of scarce resources, it would perhaps be helpful to keep your best jokes for a Friday. Teams who wish to have fun together would also do well to organise a meeting on a somewhat less serious topic on a Friday afternoon, since such sessions tend to be more conducive to laughter—say, a meeting on where to plan a future offsite, rather than a rigorous review of sales targets for the week ahead. We need to make Friday a happy day, because, as you know, the next day is a sadder day. I know this is a weak-end to a column on humour. Oh boy, haven’t I really fallen off that cliff.

Harish Bhat works with the Tata group. He has lived up to his name by being the butt of many jokes.

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