Humour is often about misunderstandings, so don’t complain if you’re misunderstood

Kentaro Kobayashi got fired from his job as Creative Director of the opening ceremony at the Tokyo Olympics for making an inappropriate joke in 1998.

That might seem rather harsh, he was a young comedian going for – in his words – “cheap laughs”, but the joke was about the holocaust, and if you are going to make racist jokes, you have to accept that that comes at a price.

He apologised: “It should never be the job of an entertainer to make people feel uncomfortable.”

I disagree.

I think comedians should make people feel uncomfortable but only if the people are deserving of it, which we all are sometimes (our hypocrisy should be exposed and mocked), but we should not be made to feel uncomfortable because of our ethnicity or gender or religion or whatever.

I aspire to be both an anti-racist person and a forgiving person, so I’m not quite sure where that leaves me in Kobayashi’s case, but I tend to be more willing to forgive mistakes if something has been learnt, and we all have a youth dotted with things we’d rather forget.

Well, I should only speak for myself, although I am lucky to have grown up before everything was videoed and put on TikTok, so I can (and will) deny a lot of it.

As with Kobayashi, my use of humour has been a source of workplace blunders over the years.

I am quite comfortable with things like responsibility and intellectual tasks (i.e things that don’t involve heavy lifting), but I lack a deft touch when it came to dealing with people, especially so when I was younger. I wasn’t intentionally rude, I believed in courtesy and respect, but my default setting for any situation is humour, and my humour back then was stuck on bone-dry sarcasm.

Little wonder I was often taken seriously or misunderstood.

At school this had been an issue, but one I was blind to at the time. Teenagers get some latitude for their clunky humour and obnoxious behaviour, so I wasn’t fully exposed to the risk of my wisecracks. Also a lot of what passed for humour in those days was predefined by The Young Ones or Blackadder and to attain comic genius status you just had to repeat lines from Rik Mayall or Rowan Atkinson. These were things I did quite well, so there was always just enough success for me to think I was on the right track. The rest of the time I was improvising, but again you could shield yourself from the negative consequences by accusing the victim of having no sense of humour when they didn’t crack up in hysterics as you insulted them.

One of my first jobs was working in a petrol station and an embarrassing example of my misfiring cocksure humour was when a regular customer who worked for a car hire company at the airport signed in the wrong box on the account slip. There was no excuse for this lapse, she filled it in several times a day, and I thought I’d have some fun with it and responded, “Oh no! You signed in the wrong place, you’ve ruined it!” and then, with one eye on my friend who was hanging around until my shift finished, “how did you even get a job?!”

I thought I was up there with Oscar Wilde for landing this funny on her.

I wasn’t.

My expressionless face and dryness of delivery made it sound less like the knockabout banter I was aiming for, and more like a nasty barb. I was lucky that she took it well, although maybe if she’d scolded me there and then, I’d have learnt a lesson and saved future heartache. As it was, her kind and skillful response made me think I’d hit the target.

There were other cases too. Always the same, always me trying to be mildly outrageous with dry sarcastic wit, but ending up sounding sharp and unkind, or, in some cases, just sounding odd.

I would play characters in my head, being hilariously unreasonable or absurd, but didn’t tell anyone I was doing it, and then was shocked if I was taken seriously … but then there were no clues, we were at work and I was doing it with a straight face, so I can’t really complain that I was often misunderstood.

I didn’t always get it wrong. I could get quite a good laugh from people sometimes, and I loved watching them giggle as they uncovered the layers of the joke, but I couldn’t predict which way it would land: gales of laughter, uncomfortable silence, or loss of friendships – I have had all three.

It was like comedy Russian Roulette, and I didn’t even know I was playing it.

It was the only half-decent tool I had in my social skills toolbox, and it wasn’t that I consciously chose to use it because the situation demanded it, it was that I didn’t know how else to interact with the humans.

Humour is powerful, and like all powerful things, it has the potential to create or destroy, and that makes it a high-risk strategy at work.

Mike Myatt, in a 2012 Forbes article, sums it up well:

The very nature of humor is it’s misunderstood more often than not.

Often humour depends on mixed meanings or misunderstandings, and if the point of the joke is to mock or belittle, then you are being destructive, and that’s not worth doing, not even for a laugh.

Humour is also highly idiosyncratic.

What’s funny for one might be unfunny, or even offensive, to another. Depending on the gag, a dead-on-arrival joke will likely make the joker look rude, desperate, unprofessional or just plain weird – and if you are coming at this from the misfit starting point (as I was) where you might not have the safety net of a trusting relationship, you really don’t need to pile up yet more evidence of your weirdness.

In Myatt’s article I quoted above, he offers eight tips, all of which are excellent advice.

The key point for me was this one:

Use humor to lift people up, not to put them down. Don’t laugh at people – laugh with them.

Cutting other people down, slicing them up with sarcasm, exposing their errors to mockery, even if funny, is not a good strategy for workplace humour … as I found out … eventually.

Humour isn’t a way to give subtle feedback, or to puff yourself up, or to prove your credentials as a budding comedian. It’s not competitive either, there is no prize for being the funniest person in the room.

The professional you, the side of you who shows up for work, needs to keep those things under control and use humour skillfully to create positive outcomes.

Humour can be used to lower tension, to help keep things in perspective, to make people feel included, to lower hierarchical boundaries, and to create a more fun and creative environment … but not overused. Someone who is always cracking funnies undermines their own credibility as a serious professional.

I am always slightly uncomfortable sharing advice because it implies I am bigging myself up into some big-shot I don’t claim to be, but in the arena of misused humour at work, I think I’ve earned my spurs, so here goes …

My advice is to take work seriously, but enjoy it. Make sure your humour isn’t too dry (smiling is important!), and ensure it is kind and generous to others. Never put others down with humour, and only put yourself down a bit, don’t over do it. Use humour to show your humanity and your humility. Be generous when other people try to be humourous, even if they’re not very good at it (we can’t all be Oscar Wilde) … and if you get it wrong, apologise.

I didn’t get that advice when I was young, but anyway I would have been too immature to listen, a pity because learning to use humour skillfully rather than bull-in-a-china-shop-ly is a skill well worth acquiring.

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