Think about this before you crack that joke

“Whoa, those are some white legs!”, Wayne yelled to me as he worked on the roof. Wayne, the lead carpenter on the house I’m building, is a good-ole-boy rough-and-tumble guy whose face is as tan as saddle leather. We’d talked 2–3 times in the past. He always seemed nice, but I didn’t know him very well.

My face flushed as I tried to figure out what he meant. I squinted to see if he was smiling, but he had already turned back to his work. Walking down to the house, I wondered, “What did he mean by that?”

Endless possibilities ran through my head. Was it an insult? Poking fun at my weight? Pointing out that I was a “city boy”? Maybe he was mocking my “fancy” job that kept me indoors all day? Or was he a bully showing off in front of his crew, showing me HE was the boss here?

The more I thought about it, the worse it felt. I put my head down, said nothing and crossed the driveway to the foreman. I wasn’t going to open my mouth and give him any ammunition. “Just ignore him,” I thought.

Suddenly I heard Wayne yell, “ I gave up wearing shorts years ago. You should see my legs; white as a sheet! Hahaha. Take it easy!”

Relief flooded my brain. He was joking with me! I get it. Whew. 
Grinning, I gave him a thumbs up and continued.

A lesson in humor

I’m working on an article on Humor and Leadership based on some interesting research. This is not that article, but it illustrates what the researchers found:

“The existing relationship between a leader and subordinate is a crucial contextual cue for subordinates as they process leader humor.”

They go on to state that “[a subordinate’s perception of their relationship with the leader] will shape subordinates beliefs about whether the motives and intentions behind a leader’s interpersonal behavior are positive or negative” (Robert, Dunne, & Iun, 2016).

I was confused by Wayne’s joke because we are in early phases of our relationship (between the stranger and acquaintance phase). His one joke, thrown from afar without any context of past relationship (or even facial expressions) caused me moments of confusion and angst.

I could have easily left the job site feeling upset and confused, making for an awkward interaction the next time we met. I also may have left with a negative impression of Wayne, the builder or the whole project.

Humor is a force multiplier.

If you have a good relationship with your programmer, both your affirming and aggressive humor (i.e. teasing) will improve the relationship.
But, and this sounds counter-intuitive, if you have a bad relationship with your programmer, ANY humor will negatively impact the relationship.

Full stop. Re-read that again. Your most well-intentioned, affirming humor will hurt your relationship with your out-group.

Why? The article reminds us “interpreting humor and the humorist’s underlying intent and motivations is often difficult.” Wyer and Collins’s (1992) theory of humor elicitation suggests we process the humor to “try to understand why the communication might have been conveyed and, therefore, what the communicator actually intended to say.”

We all know that some jokes carry secret meanings. Some jokes are actually warnings or threats.

Some sound like affirmations, but they aren’t. Our relationship with someone sets the context for their interpretation of the humor.

You might not have “meant it that way,” but that doesn’t matter. It only matters how they interpreted it, which is a process that takes into account your relationship with them.

Time matters too

Tenure, the length of time someone has worked for you, also plays a role in humor interpretation.

The research finds as tenure increases relationships tend to stabilize. In time, negative humor becomes less diagnostic for determining the nature of the relationship.

For example, jokingly mentioning to a new programmer on your team, “You could be a bit more of a perfectionist” may not be taken as a joke. In fact, it may be seen as a warning to “shape up.” Or, they may interpret it as if they were being too much of a perfectionist, and weren’t in-line with team standards.

The same comment made to someone with a longer tenure may be seen as humorously sarcastic, or even a veiled compliment.

Thus, it pays to be extra careful with using humor with your new team members. At the very least, make your humor positive and clear, instead of veiled and sarcastic.

What does this mean for us?

Before you crack that joke today, think about the how it might be received. How long the person has known you. How much context you have.

If you’re not sure, hold back your sparkling wit, and think about what you can say to improve your relationship with them. That’s the real problem you need to address.

Because jokes about white legs aren’t funny unless you’re already on good terms.

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[1] Robert C., Dunne T., & Iun J. (2016). The Impact of Leader Humor on Subordinate Job Satisfaction: The Crucial Role of Leader-Subordinate Relationship Quality. Group & Organizational Management, 41(3), 375–406.