I’ve done it, you’ve done it. You tell a joke your spouse busted a gut over last night, but at work, it gets you stares that make you want to slide under the boardroom table.
So below are seven steps for getting jokes right at work. The first three or four are fit inside each other like Russian dolls. These tips won’t give you a sense of humour if you don’t have one, but they will help you predict when an audience will or won’t laugh.
1. Put yourself in your audience’s shoes and think about how your audience really feels about things
As the comic Keegan-Michael Key, of Key and Peele, puts it, “You need to be able to guess what many people really feel about something, even if they won’t ever dare say it.”
2. Come up with statements that are benign violations
Peter McGraw, humour researcher, has determined that for something to be funny to people, a statement has to be two things simultaneously:
- A violation of expectations or norms.
- Benign (not harmful): at least from the perspective of the audience.
“Adorable idea. Colleagues have been writing names on their food in the office fridge. I am currently eating a yoghurt called Debbie.” – @FussyStaffa
This tweet has two benign violations: eating someone else’s yogurt, and naming yogurt “Debbie”. But Debbie (the co-worker) might not laugh. That’s because she might need that yogurt. But we could see her laughing if:
- She wasn’t that hungry,
- She could choose not to care about her lunch in order to enjoy a laugh with the tweeter, or
- The yogurt was expired.
That’s because all of these conditions might make the violation benign to Debbie.
3. Wait for distance from tragedies
A few days before Hurricane Sandy, tweets from @HurricaneSandy like “Oh Sh_t just destroyed a Starbucks. Now I’m a pumpkin spice hurricane,” and “JUS BLEW DA ROOF OFF A OLIVE GARDEN FREE BREADSTICKS 4 EVERYONE.” were funny. For two weeks after the storm, they were offensive and inappropriate. After the two-week point, people gradually began to find them less offensive again, with the jokes reaching their highest point of popularity one month after the storm.
4. Make milder violations bigger
Seinfeld made us laugh because it took minor violations and exploded them, like Elaine and her boyfriend breaking up over his use of exclamation points. If Elaine had casually mentioned she thought he should use more explanation points, it wouldn’t have been funny – her flipping out over his lack of explanation points and his storming out was.
5. Tease people about things that are temporary, common or not core to their identity
Things like being sick, being unusually late or having a rare zit. Don’t tease people about things that are permanent, unusual or core to their identities, because people are likely to be insecure about these things.
6. Tease people about things they feel good about
Ellen’s quip: “Amy Adams… you’re nominated for not one but TWO Academy Awards tonight. That’s so… what’s the word for it? Selfish, I guess,” is perfect workplace humour because it builds the subject up.
7. Save dark humour for head-oriented people.
Head-oriented people love ideas and analysis. They are more likely to laugh at “Butcher Family Funeral Homes: We Put the ‘Fun’ back in ‘Funeral’!” Others, such as those who are more emotionally driven, will get caught up in the emotion and not appreciate the joke.
Jokes liven up a workplace and help us relate to each other. Enjoy the laughter.
This blog is a sample from an upcoming book by ACHIEVE Publishing. The book will draw heavily on “A Great Place to Work” Survey. We hope you participate in the short survey – we would love to hear your input.
 Smith, Z. (2017, July 20). Key and Peele’s Comedy Partnership. Retrieved August 11, 2017, from http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/02/23/brother-from-another-mother
 McGraw, P., & Warner, J. (2015). The humor code: A global search for what makes things funny. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks.
 Pauker, L. (2014, February 17). The 50 Funniest Quotes From ‘Seinfeld’. Retrieved August 11, 2017, from https://thoughtcatalog.com/lance-pauker/2014/02/the-50-funniest-quotes-from-seinfeld/
 Charisma on Command. (2016, September 19). 3 Jokes That Make People Instantly Like You. Retrieved August 11, 2017, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRjRgT8QQ3c
 Schmitz, A. (2014, March 02). LOL! Ellen DeGeneres’s Funniest Oscar Jokes. Retrieved August 11, 2017, from https://parade.com/267460/ashleighschmitz/lol-ellen-degeneress-funniest-oscar-jokes/