WHEN BARTLEBY reflects on life’s lessons, he always remembers his grandfather’s last words: “A truck!” Bartleby’s uncle also suffered an early demise, falling into a vat of polish at the furniture factory. It was a terrible end but a lovely finish.
Whether you find such stories amusing will depend on taste and whether you have heard them before. But a sense of humor is, by and large, a useful thing to have in life. A study of undergraduates found that those with a strong sense of humor experienced less stress and anxiety than those without it.
Humour can be a particular source of comfort at work, where sometimes it can be the only healthy reaction to setbacks or irrational commands from the boss. Classic examples can be found in both the British and American versions of the TV sitcom “The Office”, where workers have to deal with eccentric, egotistical managers, played respectively by Ricky Gervais and Steve Carell. The comedy stems, in part, from the way that the office hierarchy requires the employees to put up with the appalling behavior of the manager.
And those programs also illustrate the double-edged nature of workplace humor. When the bosses try to make a joke, they are often crass and insensitive, making the situation excruciating for everyone else (these are shows best watched through the fingers). The healthiest kind of workplace humor stems from the bottom up, not from the top down. Often the most popular employees at work are those who can lighten the mood with a joke or two.
Of course, humor can be used, even by non-managers, in a cruel or condescending way. What one man may mean as a laddish joke comes across to women as a disrespectful put-down. A better source of humor is the shared gripes that most workers face. Everyone can appreciate a quip about the cramped commuter trains, the officious security guard, the sluggish lifts, or the dodgy canteen food. In that sense, workers can feel they are all (bar the security guard) “in it together”. This helps create team spirit and relieve stress.
Both soldiers and schoolchildren tend to create “in-jokes” as a way of subtly subverting the hierarchy of their organisations. In the first world war, British soldiers published a newspaper called the Wipers Times. A typical poem began: “Realising men must laugh/Some wise man devised the staff.” Troops in the trenches dubbed themselves the PBI (poor bloody infantry). The TV comedies “Sergeant Bilko” and “Blackadder Goes Forth” both relied on wily soldiers finding ways of subverting the orders of their clueless, or callous, commanding officers. Schoolchildren, for their part, give their teachers nicknames which are only used out of earshot; at Bartleby’s school, Mr Canard was known as “Quack” because his surname was the French word for duck.
A downside of remote working is that moments of shared humor are harder to create. Many a long meeting at The Economist has been enlivened by a subversive quip from a participant. These jokes only work when they are spontaneous and well-timed. Trying to make a joke during a Zoom conference call is virtually impossible; by the time one has found the “raise hand” button and been recognized by the host, the moment has inevitably passed. This is a shame, as most of us could do with a laugh now and again to get through the pandemic.
Work is a serious matter but it cannot be taken seriously all the time. Sometimes things happen at work that is inherently ridiculous. Perhaps the technology breaks down just as the boss is in mid-oration, or a customer makes an absurd request. (Remember the probably apocryphal story of a person who rang the equipment manufacturer and asked them to fax through some more paper when the machine ran out?)
There is also something deeply silly about management jargon. Most people will have sat through presentations by executives who insist on calling a spade a “manual horticultural implement”. Too many managers use long words to disguise the fact they have no coherent message to impart. Such language is ripe for satire or at the very least a collective game of “buzzword bingo”.
But satire should not just be applied to other people. Perhaps the most important thing is not to take one’s own work too seriously. As the late, great gag-writer and comic Bob Monkhouse recalled at the height of his career, “They laughed when I said I wanted to be a comedian. Well, they’re not laughing now.”
This article appeared in the Business section of the print edition under the headline “Why we need to laugh at work”