When humour is no laughing matter

Humour in the workplace can be tough. Done right, it puts everyone at ease. Done wrong, it can create a toxic environment.

By Regner Hansen

If you work in an office that has both Danes and non-Danes, you’ve probably always felt it could get a little awkward when a Dane makes a joke. Now, academia has got your back: in a recently published book, Lita Lundquist, a professor emerita at Copenhagen Business School, looks into humour and socialisation.

The good news, she says, is that humour in the workplace can result in people working more closely together to accomplish their goals.

“If you’re sitting around the table in the canteen and everyone starts laughing at one of your co-worker’s jokes, you’re going to get a good feeling, you’ll be happy, you’ll relax a little and you’ll feel a sense of fellowship,” Lundquist says. “Sociologists will tell you that an episode involving successful, spontaneous humour sets off a chain of events that starts with mutual identification between sender and recipient, which then allows them to bond and eventually to trust each other.”

There is a but: your attempt at humour is going to fail if the recipient isn’t capable of decoding what you are trying to get across, she warns.

“Decoding is the key to a joke working,” Lundquist says. Fortunately, people can normally do that, but, when they can’t, and the joke bombs, it can poison the office dynamic.”

Lundquist is affiliated with the Copenhagen Business School’s Centre for Civil Society Studies, in its Department of Management, Politics and Philosophy. As linguist, she has in recent years taken an increasing interest in the link between language and societal norms.

Humour, a serious issue

Her book, Humorsocialisering, or ‘humour socialisation’, looks into why jokes are misunderstood, and what can happen when they are.

“Not all Danes share the same sense of humour, but we have more in common with each other than we do with other nationalities,” Lundquist says. “We are socialised to think that certain things are funny starting when we are children and continuing throughout our lives. Someone starting in a new job isn’t going to be in the inside joke in the office, or they might not understand some of the workplace jargon right off the bat.”

Add non-Danes to the workplace mix – whether it’s foreigners working at a Danish company or, as we increasingly see, Danes working in an internationalised environment – and it’s a lot more difficult for everyone to get the joke right away. In fact, according to Lundquist it can actually go seriously wrong; Danish humour has a way of offending people who have a different idea of what’s funny.

The material for Lundquist’s book comes from interviews and surveys of managers, employees and students at a range of workplaces that all have some degree of internationalisation. The primary focus was on Danes working in French firms, and vice versa, as well as foreign students at CBS and members of the European Parliament. Once the data were collected, she applied humour, linguistic and sociological theories to see if she could draw any conclusions.

Funny for all

One thing that Lundquist says is important to keep in mind when studying humour, is that while different groups find different things funny there are some things all societies find funny, like double entendre.

“When you use double entendre, you set up a situation in which a key word or the context leads to a statement being understood one way, but, when you add an element of humour, the recipient is suddenly forced to understand the statement in another way, but both ways of understanding what was said are equally valid.”

By making it possible to be ambiguous, humour can be used to contrast something concrete with something abstract, or it can be used as a way to let off tension or let people say something that would otherwise be inappropriate in the situation.

Another universal element of humour is what the experts call cognitive efficiency.

“We’ve all had to listen to someone tell a long and boring story before they get to the punchline,” Lundquist says. “When it comes to humour, the rule of thumb is that the less you say, the bigger the impact.”

It’s all in the adverbs

One of the things that makes Danish humour Danish is its heavy reliance on a class of short, uninflected adverbs that add a layer of complexity and nuance to what would otherwise be a straightforward statement. If you are familiar with Danish, these are words like jo, nok, vist, vel and da that, in the right context, can play a big role.

“These words are a sign of the intimacy that is necessary for understanding spontaneous conversational humour. When you use them, you are showing that both you and the recipient understand the premise of the joke,” Lundquist says.

And, in her experience, if you’re not Danish you probably don’t understand what these words really imply. Normally they are used to express irony or self-deprecation, both of which are common elements of Danish humour – quite possibly the most common.

When you use irony, you set up a situation in which you want to appear to be naïve. Self-deprecation is the act of putting yourself down.

“Irony and self-deprecation only work when everyone in the group knows each other, or at least knows their way of thinking,” Lundquist says.

Great humour

Language, however, is only one way to study humour, according to Lundquist. She reckons that the social sciences offer a better tool for explaining why humour is successful between two people and how it affects the way they relate to each other.

For Lundquist, there are two theories that apply here. The first, devised by Norbert Elias, a German sociologist, is called the civilising process and suggests that the historical development of the society you grew up in determines the dominant mentality and influences who you are.

Another relevant theory when it comes to understanding humour, according to Lundquist, is the one put forward by Harald Høffding, a Danish philosopher and psychologist, positing that our sense of humour is derived from what he calls ‘the great humour’, which is the sense of humour that a society or a group builds up over time based on a myriad of tiny experiences. Put another way, what we think is funny is something we acquire from our society.

“This is what I call ‘humour socialisation’,” Lundquist says.

Perhaps the most important element of Høffding’s theory is, she believes, the idea that laughter – a sign of successful humour – is only possible if sender and recipient have a common humour and, thus, share a reference point, his idea of a ‘great humour’.

Culture or cohesion

In her book, Lundquist contrasts Danish and French humour socialisation. In France, she found, the particular culture that evolved around the aristocracy and the royal court was co-opted by the middle classes when they came to power, and, from there, it spread to the rest of society. French society, she explains, is hierarchical, and it is important to maintain – and, ideally, advance – one’s position.

As a consequence, the preferred form of humour in France are plays on words, which the sender can use to show that they are cultured. In contrast to Denmark, people tend not to make jokes about their private lives at work since doing so could harm their status.

Since 1864 and the loss of what is today Southern Jutland to Germany in the Second Schleswig War, Danish identity has rested on a cornerstone of social cohesion. After the war, it no longer mattered what your social class was; everyone needed to be counted as part of the group. A heavy emphasis was placed in social reforms and education. Denmark became more egalitarian. Lundquist explains the situation with the Danish term lejrbålsmentalitet, literally, ‘campfire mentality’, which conjures up an image of a group sitting around a fire, shoulder to shoulder, backs to the darkness.

Out of this fellowship grows a common understanding of what makes irony and self-deprecation possible.

When good humour goes wrong

“If everyone is tied together by a common language and a national character this isn’t a problem. But it fails if the sender of a joke assumes that everyone is like him or her and they aren’t. People can belong to other groups, come from another culture or speak a different language,” Lundquist says.

When humour does fail, the best thing that can happen is that the recipient doesn’t even realise the sender was making a joke, and it goes over their head. Or, they understand it was a joke, but didn’t understand the joke itself, so they laugh, but only to cover their embarrassment. For the sender, this serves as a signal to be more careful next time.

Sometimes, though, a recipient who doesn’t understand that a joke is being made will view the sender as rude, insulting or mean. That’s bad if you were planning on the person being a contributing member of a group.

“Misunderstood humour can make the recipient feel insecure, confused or belittled. Or you could see changed behaviour in the recipient, who might choose to distance him or herself from the group by doing things like eating lunch alone instead of with the rest of the office.”

Humour by consensus

But if humour gone wrong can push someone out of a group, picking up the group’s sense of humour can make you feel more a part of it, which, according to Lundquist, is possible even if you have a different humour background.

“An office can expand its understanding of what is considered funny,” she says. “The process involves finding out what your co-workers with a different humour background think is funny, unlearning your own unproductive humour habits and coming up with a new group humour.”

Group humour, she adds, might even be essential for offices that include people with different linguistic and national backgrounds.

In interviews with Danish, French and German members of the European Parliament, Lundquist found that the various national humours of its members have merged over time, resulting in the evolution of a unique group humour. She calls the process international humour socialisation.

As a humour platform, the European Parliament, she finds, is constructed by its members in a bottom up process. She recommends that organisations take note; the type of managed process of coming up with a humour that a lot of consultancies try to offer rarely works, she warns.

“You can’t strip humour of its surprising and funny elements. If people get the sense that you are trying to tell them what to think is funny and what to think isn’t funny, they’re going to get irritated with you and just refuse to be a part of it,” she says.

The better alternative: let people come to their own conclusion about where their sense of humour comes from, and where their co-workers’ sense of humour comes from, and try to appreciate their jokes.

“Personally,” Lundquist says, “I think French plays on words can be simply elegant.”

Lita Lundquist; Humorsocialisering: Hvorfor er danskerne (ikke) så sjove (som de selv tror)? Samfundslitteratur, 2020

“Danish humour is a cold humour”

André, an early-career academic from France, was amongst the foreigners who talked to Lundquist about their run-ins with Danish humour.

Despite living in Denmark for a number of years, André didn’t speak Danish. His reason: he was still on the waiting list for the course he wanted to take. One day, a co-worker suggested that the best way to learn Danish would be to get a divorce and marry a Dane.

It was a joke, but André was offended. He felt that it crossed the line because it touched on something in his private life. His comment to Lundquist: “Danish humour is a cold humour.” Danes’ deadpan expression when they are trying to be funny doesn’t help either, he added. “I only realise about half of the time that they are probably trying to tell me a joke,” he said.

Internationalised humour

Several members of the European Parliament explained to Lundquist its multinational composition has resulted in the development of a sense of humour that is understandable by everyone.

One Danish MEP described the development of a group language and identity. “There are lots of things we find very funny but which few other people would see the humour in.”

A German MEP felt it was fortunate that members have a “humorous way of speaking” that makes the emergence of a “common European forum for understanding possible”.

A French MEP noted that members were no different from any other group of people who worked together, in that they eventually develop their own jargon that then serves as a potential source of “humorous incidents”.