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Humor in (Online) Work Communication

Should we use humor in the workplace? This question has no clear-cut answer, as it has many facets to it. Yes, using humor appropriately can be challenging, but if humor is used well in the workplace, it can have a multitude of positive outcomes. Think increased job satisfaction, well-being, health, engagement, productivity and team bonding. Unfortunately, this is not true for every humor style. What is a humor style? Which ones can make the workplace more fun? This article will explain!

Why laughing is beneficial

Did you know that laughing burns calories? 10-15 minutes of laughter can burn 10-40 calories, depending on your body type. But it does not stop there. Laughing itself helps to break down cortisol, which is a stress hormone, and thereby helps measurably in reducing stress. In addition, laughing releases the neurotransmitter dopamine, which activates the reward center in the brain, as well as the bonding hormone oxytocin.

Fun fact: Oxytocin is known to also be released during childbirth, breastfeeding and sex, while dopamine is released during sports and causes the so-called “runners high.” So, if we look at our bodily responses, laughing is like meditating, exercising, and having sex – at the same time! Isn’t that great – we can save so much time from now on! All jokes aside, laughing has a real and beneficial influence. Enough reason to give it more importance in the workplace.

The four humor styles

Martin et al. (2003) created a taxonomy of 4 different humor styles. They distinguished between humor that is:

  1. used to either enhance the self OR to enhance one's relationships with others with others
  2. either benevolent, meaning tolerant and accepting of others, OR harmful to the self or one’s relationship with others.

The resulting four humor styles:

  1. Affiliative humoris positive and inclusive in a sense that everyone might find it funny. It is used to amuse others and bring people closer together.
  2. Self-Enhancing Humor: is finding amusement in everyday situations and even life's hardships. As Veronica Roth formulated it “Sometimes crying or laughing are the only options left, and laughing feels better right now.” It can be a healthy way to cope with stress.
  3. Self-destructive humoris making funny statements at one’s own expense.
  4. Aggressive humorinvolves putting others down or demeaning and insulting others.

Which humor styles should we use at work?

As you have probably correctly guessed, some forms of humor are more beneficial than others. Affiliative and Self-enhancing humor are nearly always good to use in the workplace. These styles can lighten up the mood, reduce tension and create a more fun work environment.

Self-destructive humor is good if you use it correctly. Showing that you don't take yourself too seriously can be very bonding. However, you should refrain from slagging yourself on competencies and characteristics that are relevant to your work. It may cause your colleagues to perceive you as less competent or self-confident.

Aggressive humor is actually never a good choice. In the long run it can cause conflict, severely decrease the recipients physical and mental well-being and make them avoid the workplace or even leave the organization. If you notice people using aggressive humor, you should bring it up in your team, report to HR or a superior you trust, and an intervention needs to be found.

Humor in online communication – What to keep in mind?

Unlike face-to-face communication, online communication offers more challenges when it comes to the use of humor. Remember that your conversational partner has fewer clues to interpret your messages and humor does not always translate in written communication. With the distinction of the different humor styles, you now have a great tool at hand to reflect on your own and others’ use of humor. We would like to invite you to benefit from the positive effects of humor in the workplace and share more laughs with your colleagues!


Written by: Letizia Grigo