Have we lost our sense of humour in the office?

Published on 1 November 2018 by Adam Leigh

I am going to try and write this piece with tact and appropriate humour. (You can be the judge.) But also, a little dose of trepidation.

These are sensitive times in which you have got to be careful what you say to a public audience. I am emboldened by the knowledge that I run my own business and my partner (though most would say my boss) is my beloved wife. She is principled, determined and a vegetarian since 1985. I am confident I won’t get fired or have to resign, even if I express a remotely carnivorous observation.

This morning I received a WhatsApp photo of my son dressed as a smurf at his Halloween party at University. I replied to my family that I always thought of him more as a bit of a muppet and the response was a deafening indifferent silence on the family chat. Perhaps I have been muppetist and caused offence. I hope not – Manamana is one of my favourite songs.

Of course, others are not so lucky. There is a fierce debate ranging in the UK media this morning about the resignation of William Sitwell at Waitrose Magazine because of the heavily sardonic comments he made to a (Vegan) contributor about Veganism. That he caused offence is unquestioned. That he should have to resign a 20 year post is being hotly debated, with my (subjective) sense from the coverage I have read, suggesting that censure was appropriate, genuine apology necessary, but redundancy a little excessive. Like Jeremy Corbyn on the merits of Brexit, I am not going to express an opinion. What I want to talk about is humour.

There is an irony in the fact that as we are more freely able to express opinions but, if those opinions are deemed by an amorphous wider audience to be misguided, the consequences can be very serious. Diversity of opinion tends to be underpinned by a righteous anger not seen since the Old Testament.

So what is the role for office banter – a catchall for everything from a silly email to a perceived practical joke? How do you foster the value of self-expression in a professional climate which has necessarily strengthened its intolerance of prejudice, bullying and discrimination? (As I write this there has been a global walkout at Google in response to the serious misconduct against its female staff.)

Psychology Today explained why we need to laugh by stating in 2016: “Anybody can make you cry, but only certain people can make you laugh. Laughter releases endorphins, which make us feel good about ourselves and others. This good feeling creates a bond between two people and imbues a sense of togetherness in groups. The Golden Rule of friendship states that if you make people feel good about themselves, they will like you—and laughter does just that. It makes you feel good about yourself and the person who triggered your laughter.”

The challenge to our business culture is to cultivate a love of self-expression, mirth and laughter without recourse to offence to an individual or belief. Inevitably, there will be occasion where offence is caused without intent or prejudice. Therefore, the role of leadership is to be brave in confronting these situations and look beyond the ill-judged comment to the person and the overall behaviours.  Perhaps we just need to be a bit more forgiving and conciliatory in a febrile atmosphere of strident beliefs and self-important indignation. Let’s embrace contrition to avoid unnecessary resignations.

If I have caused any offence with this outpouring of sanctimonious liberalism, I apologise. Me, I love Vegans.