New research from the University of Missouri shows that using humor in the workplace is more challenging for women than it is for men and can depend on several factors, such as a woman’s perceived status in the office and whether her humor is focused on other women.
The findings of the study have been published in the Journal of Managerial Psychology. Christopher Robert, an associate professor at MU and also interim dean of the Trulaske College of Business, conducted a study to analyze how people respond to men and women who use humor in the workplace. The aim was to determine whether a person’s gender and status in the workplace would affect how others responded to their humor.
The researchers surveyed 92 college students after reading workplace scenarios in which men and women made humorous comments. Scenarios were adapted so that the humorist, or the person making the humorous comment, was a man or a woman, of high or low status, and they also varied whether the target of the humor was a man or a woman.
In addition, some scenarios contained humor that was friendlier or “affiliative”, while others contained aggressive humor. The researchers then asked the participants to determine how “foolish” they found the humorists.
One of the scenarios takes place during a meeting where hospital staff discuss some of the challenges that have led to patient deaths. A female nurse stutters as she tries to share her ideas for tackling a problem and is interrupted by an employee who tries to make a humorous comment and makes fun of her not being able to find her words. In this case, the researchers varied the status and gender of the person telling the joke. When high-status men, low-status men, and high-status women made the aggressive humorous comment, they were viewed more positively, but when a low-status woman made the joke, she was considered more foolish.
The researchers also analyzed how the gender of the target of the humorous comment affected how study participants viewed the person with humor. “Women who used humor aimed at a man were seen as positive,” Robert said. “But when a high-status woman used humor aimed at a lower-status woman in the workplace, she was seen as negative and judged as more foolish.”
Robert said these findings should remind people to refrain from making direct judgments about people based on their use of humor, and to consider whether these judgments are influenced by prejudices about the identities of the individuals in question. “This research reinforces the fact that we even have inherent biases that affect how we view people who use humor. If someone questions someone’s sense of humor, they should ask themselves, ‘Would I make the same judgment if the person using the humor was more like me?'” said Robert.
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