When I was first initiated into Corporate America, I had a sense of humor that went unmatched by any mortal soul. I was quick-witted, smart, sharp, and knew every gag and joke available to humanity. Most of it, I learned in college. But, college never really did teach the fact that having a sense of humor in the workplace is different than 'jocularity.' After a few brushes with career-chaos, I realized that the definition of 'corporate humor' deals with how one handles oneself and not how one can elicit laughter.
Where did this come from?
One of my friends came to Las Vegas last week to visit and relax a bit. He and I went out and checked out some of the local bands. During the course of the evening, he brought up some issues about his current job situation. After some introductory words, we discussed the issue that he seems to get blamed for some of the stupidest things, that he never did, and no one takes him seriously anymore. Then, he cracked some joke about it and we carried on.
Not being taken seriously by your peers is actually a common problem with people who do have a sense of humor. But, funny has no place in the workplace and can easily wreak havoc on an otherwise blossoming career.
So, no more laughter?
Of course, laughter is necessary in life. But, in a professional setting, it becomes a different type of laughter. One situation you will encounter as you move through your career is the seriousness of professionalism. Of course, to some, this is not a problem. But, to those that have a funny bone, this is a big problem and a detriment to one's career.
You have to realize that when your boss asks if you have a sense of humor, he's not asking if you're a clown. What he is asking is whether or not you can accept criticism, deal with difficult people, and gracefully handle mistakes without snapping people's heads off when things get stressful. It is important and considered professional to be able to take criticism lightly as it is sometimes used as a tool of 'turf wars' than an actual personal attack.
Hey, that was funny!
If you begin to crack jokes and make snide remarks, you will eventually not be taken seriously in the workplace. You will be seen as someone who wastes time because every time that someone approaches you to discuss a project or other issues with you, some of that time is spent explaining your humorous comments. Additionally, many corporate-minded individuals do not have the time to analyze comments with hidden meanings and will take what you say as absolute. Therefore, if you make a 'stupid' comment in hopes of eliciting a smile, your comment will be taken as an absolute and a representation of your professionalism in the workplace. Finally, if your comments do have hidden meanings or contain humorous connotations, then anything you say will be taken as unreliable, thus labeling you as unreliable.
Realize that the corporate culture labels you by 'visible change,' not completely by merit. What I mean is, the last way you presented yourself is the way that you will be seen in the workplace. If you are a serious, pleasant, and hard worker, you will be seen that way. If you crack a joke in the middle of a serious moment, from then on, you will be seen as a joker.
Look over there!
One thing to keep in mind is that many people crack jokes and make 'humorous' comments when they are uncomfortable or lack confidence in a situation. If this applies to you, realize that your peers know this as well. Being overly humorous under stress gives off a sign of weakness within the workplace and will also cause you to be ousted from the ranks.
Try to find another outlet for discomfort or confidence issues. Perhaps a favorite ink pen or a small quartz crystal to toy with in such situations will remind you to maintain your professional façade as well as keep you calm.
Watch what you say!
One of the big problems facing corporate cultures today is that, in general, everyone is 'sensitive' to everything. Instead of working together for a common goal, there are individuals that stay on their toes looking for that one thing that they can use to cause some sort of upheaval within the culture. With that, corporate-minded peers are also on the lookout for those who might do or say something to upset those sensitive individuals.
Because of this situation, there truly is no room in a standard corporate culture for remarks and comments that in certain groups might otherwise be humorous. You have to realize that when you speak within a corporate culture, be concise, be realistic, and do not add comedic breaks or sarcasm. Since everyone is taking everything 'seriously' with a 'sense of humor' for themselves, then whatever you say will be taken seriously and could easily land you in hot water.
To alleviate the chance of being misinterpreted, keep emotion and personal beliefs out of the context of your conversations. Basically, listen closely and be concise in what you say. Not only does this eliminate the problem of having people take you wrong, but it also saves a lot of time.
The Deadly Silence
There are several little games played within the corporate environment to elicit a fatal comment from the unwary. The most deadly game is the 'long pause.' In many cases, you might sit before your boss, or peers, and provide information on a particular subject or project. During the course of the discussion, you notice that your audience appears to be listening to everything you say. Then, at the end of your soliloquy, the audience seems dead or stuck in a mental time warp. This pause can last for as long as 10 seconds.
During this pause, it might seem as though your audience is mulling through your comments, but this is not entirely the case. They are creating an uncomfortable pause for you to begin doubting your comments in hopes that you divulge additional information and demonstrate your lack of confidence and discomfort.
This situation will get you every single time if you're not aware that it is only a game. One purpose of this game is so that the audience can acquire additional information from you that you would have otherwise never divulged. On the other hand, the audience might be trying to acquire your nonsensical traits from your discomfort to use during a future turf war. Again, be concise, and then listen. Wait out the infinite pause without saying a word and you'll see that they were just waiting for you to speak.
Realize that you can still have fun and enjoy your work without the frolicking antics of a pubescent employee. One mishap can destroy a lifetime of kudos, making it easier to fall from grace than to repair a reputation. Companies want people they can count on 100% of the time, not just when you're serious and comfortable. Focus, take responsibility, move forward competently, and produce quality results.
If you've already fallen because of your sense of humor, then you will have to work hard to get back into the good graces of the culture. All you have to do is maintain a professional façade, realize that corporate America is 'not personal,' and motivate in your career with confidence.
Edward B. Toupin is an author, life-strategy coach, counselor, and technical writer living in Las Vegas, NV. Among other things, he authors books and articles on topics ranging from career success through life organization and fulfillment. For more information, e-mail Edward at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his sites at http://www.toupin.com or http://www.make-life-great.com.