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Our local newspaper columnist, Mike Argento, receives weekly (maybe daily) hate mail from readers. His fans say his column vacillates between thought provoking and belly laugh producing. But his satirical tone is lost on some of his readers, and since he presents his ideas in this public forum, folks upon whom his style of wit is lost verbally thrash him in the letters to the editor.
Times have changed in what is acceptable humor on the job. When the Boomer generation first entered the working world people were still telling ethnic jokes without repercussion. The formula was simple - fill in the slanderous comment with the ethnicity of your choice and wait for the laughs. Of course it was only funny when you weren't of the ethnicity being skewered. If you were the butt of the joke/insult you were being identified as part of the "out" group just because of stereotypes about your country of origin, skin color, religion, etc. Nowadays it takes some fairly large measure of insensitivity to go there, and the jokester might receive a phone call from human resources after doing it.
Interpersonal digs and put-downs are identified as characteristic male communication style by social linguists, and the best practitioners of it can take it as well as they dish it out. Humor is used as a means to establish relative status among men. (If you don't believe us, read Georgetowne University professor Dr. Deborah Tannen's work.) This type of humor is not characteristically female, although women working in "male" cultures can be effective in those environments when they have skill with this type of humor. Constant shots across the bow tend not to go over well, though, among groups of women unless enough positive relationship is built that its intention is clearly recognized as friendly and not mean.
It's a slippery slope from situational humor to "mean girls at work". Although you might find the foibles of the people around you hilarious, sharing your observations with others can create hard feelings. You know, though, when a good-natured gig has crossed the line into insult. It's easier to notice when someone else is the transgressor. The trouble is that sometimes when you push it a bit too far you don't realize until afterward that what you meant in jest was taken to heart and hurtful to the object of the joke.
Our friend (a blonde) tells blonde jokes regularly, and they go over well with people because they're self-deprecating rather than making digs at somebody else. Self deprecating humor can be tricky, because although it can be funny you also run the risk of reinforcing a negative habit of thought about yourself that's better not reinforced. If your "I'm fat" jokes are your best material you might not be easily successful at changing your body shape if you decide that you want to at some point. Your repetition of the fatness mantra, even when humor is your intent, creates habits of thought that will have to be overcome to support new behavior that is consistent with your new goals.
A number of years ago we ran a tongue in cheek blog post for supervisors and manageres about how not to get employees to crawl over glass and nails for you. We adapted it and submitted it for a trade association publication. The editors softened the column's ending because they were concerned that their members would be offended by the last sentence: "If you do these behaviors don't die in your office, because everyone who works with you will be a suspect in your demise." Now how is that NOT funny??
Sometimes it seems that we've gone too PC with humor. Yes, we agree that the impact of a joke can be far more negative than the intent behind it ever was. We certainly don't want people to be uncomfortable as a result of our trying to create a light atmosphere. But hey - maybe we're all taking ourselves a bit too seriously. Shared jokes are bonding agents. Maybe we're throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water and missing some great opportunities to establish rapport and interpersonal glue.