Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Commentary: Can Zoom support business humor?

Commentary: Can Zoom support business humor?

By Angela Colon-Mahoney

Humor in the workplace: Is it dead? Or simply deadpan?

With professional conferences, networking, and business development now governed by a Zoom screen measured in inches, problematic Wi-Fi, bad lighting, and domestic photobombing, can business humor ever take the stage again?

Or for that matter, has humor ever really succeeded in allowing familiarity with the business audience, large or small?

Prior to COVID-19 upending our world, humor in the business world needed to be approached with the caution of tapping an unexploded bomb. Over the years, careers have suddenly ended with the misplaced punch line, the casual locker room profanity, or an executive believing they would rock the corporate seminar with a joke.

While video conference calls now compress our presentations onto small screens it has renewed our ability to personally connect with our audience during this pandemic. Has that technology made the nuances of business humor a discarded relic from a now bygone era? Has it amplified the pre-pandemic dangers that speakers should have never approached in the first place, i.e., race, gender, and sexual orientation, with the list now expanding exponentially?

Alexandra Merceron, the director of communications theory at the public relations leader Rubenstein, has written about the topic, reminding that humor in the business world is fraught with pitfalls. Merceron approaches her comments with an analysis that deconstructs “funny” and how it works, why it works, where it works and when you should avoid it at all costs.

She notes that jokes themselves don’t persuade or change behavior, but humor may enhance your ability to get an audience to like you if you’re viewed as an expert in your field. To do so requires you to understand your own sense of humor and whether it will be appreciated by others. That alone is a critical barrier to cross, which is why she believes self-deprecating humor is your safest bet. Few will take offense if the humor is self-directed.

Merceron identifies key elements to consider: It is highly subjective, based on speaker and audience factors that include shared knowledge, experience and language.

Humor has always been relative to the individual. In the corporate world it should be benign. We tend to laugh more when we are around others (even on Zoom calls). Humor, when delivered well, decreases stress. And all of these elements need to work together or the very concept of humor in the workspace quickly fails.

Merceron believes humor is best introduced by offering personal anecdotes, preferably something that the audience can relate to. Don’t pretend to be a professional with an open mic. Telling a clearly defined “joke” with the expectation of delivering a laugh-inducing punchline is usually a formula for disaster. The expert says we should find the humor that exists naturally in a situation the audience can recognize and share, using it as a dynamic element to bond with colleagues.

Humor can also be used to transition from one topic to another, acting as a bridge that sets up the audience for the next part of your presentation. And if the laughs don’t come, just keep going, as pausing for your expectation of a guffaw without getting one will make your audience very uncomfortable.

We know that infants embrace laughter by the time they are three or four months old. It reveals the simple fact that we humans love to laugh, and what elicits anything from a smile to a howl depends on who we are and our life’s experiences. With humor one of the most fragile of expressions, it can certainly bring us closer together, but only if it is wisely applied as a force for good.

The fact that we spend most of our adult lives in the workplace with colleagues is now more apparent than ever, blurring lines when it comes to connecting, sharing and, perhaps most of all, creating a sense of happiness while spending time with others.

This simple truth creates a very different demand on companies and their leadership, especially now, in this era of COVID. When carefully considered, laughter belongs on the agenda.

Angela Colon-Mahoney is vice president of human resources at Otsuka Pharmaceutical Companies, based in New Jersey. She brings 20 years of experience in attracting executive leadership to global brands such as The Estee Lauder Companies, Tyco and Unilever.

Top Legal News

See All Top Legal News


See All Commentary