Humor Dos and Don'ts

Optimist: The glass is half full. Pessimist: The glass is half empty. Engineer: The glass needs to be redesigned.

Image: Phillip Toledano/Getty Images

I’ve told that joke at parties many times and have always gotten a laugh. Tell it to a group of senior engineers who have heard it a hundred times, though, and you’ll get a polite, stony silence at best. Your ability to use humor can play a positive role in your career, but judgment is called for. Here are a few dos and don’ts.

Back in 1997, I met baseball legend Henry ”Hank” Aaron. He had arrived early for a meeting at my office. We were alone, and he seemed uncomfortable. Sensing this, I had the New York brashness to tease him about the recent World Series in which the Yankees beat his former team, the Braves. We had a good laugh. Use humor to break the ice.

In those days, one of my co-workers regularly fell asleep in the afternoon while reading. One day our supervisor beckoned us to Andy’s cubicle, where he gently placed a note on his reading material that said, ”We’re all watching you!” Andy woke up, saw the note, and looked around sheepishly. We were in hysterics. A bonding experience! Playful stunts can lighten the mood, so long as they don’t offend.

The safer strategy is to tell jokes about yourself and your own foibles. For example, in person, I can implicitly refer to my own appearance. I’m 5 feet 5 inches [1.65 meters] tall and bald. So when others complain they’re having ”a bad hair day,” I say, ”Every day is a bad hair day for me.” If a program is running late and the moderator asks me to be short, I say, ”I’m always short.” Develop your sense of self-deprecating humor.

Those jokes rely on my physical presence, where people can also see me smile. Humor frequently doesn’t convey itself in e-mail. The slightest sarcasm can come across as mean. Using emoticons, such as a :-) or a ”wink” ;-), can help. Ensure your messages are taken in the spirit you intended.

Even a joke that is guaranteed to be funny can get you a bad workplace reputation with people who might be put off by these trivial spamlike messages. Don’t mindlessly forward e-mail jokes at work.

On the other hand, you can send free eâ''cards for many situations, such as thank-yous, congratulations, and other sentiments. They can be a refreshing change. Just make sure they’re appropriate for a business communication. There’s more to humor than telling jokes. Find ways to add a lighter touch to all your communications.

Rarely are we engineers called upon to entertain, but we often make presentations where humor can hold the audience’s interest and reinforce our points. I was on the engineering panel at a middle school career day recently, and while I didn’t tell any actual jokes, the principal later thanked me for ”being so funny.” For example, when I had the students calculate the minimum required ”red time” interval at a street intersection, I pretended to be a slow-moving older pedestrian crossing the street. My overacted role-playing was effective and lighthearted. Integrate humor into your talks.

You’ve probably seen cartoons in presentations where the caption is too small to be read, or you just don’t get the point of it. On the other hand, popular comic strips like Dilbert and Peanuts can be useful. I’ve used a Peanuts cartoon to illustrate stress: the first three panels show Charlie Brown lying wide awake all through the night; the last panel shows him standing on the pitcher’s mound, thinking, ”Before a big game, there shouldn’t have to be a night before.” Humorous slides must relate to the content. Cartoons must be clear.

There’s a diverse audience out there, and different people find different things funny, or even offensive, so be careful and err on the side of caution. Hank Aaron and I come from disparate worlds—enough so that insulting his team was a bit risky. Be careful of cultural differences.

Humor can be an important facet of your work—and personal—life. Use it wisely.

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