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Navigating the Quagmire of Humor and Political Correctness
David Granirer Confused is how many people feel when it comes to the whole idea of political correctness and workplace humor. Some resent having to watch every word that comes out of their mouth, while others now feel safer knowing their vulnerabilities won�t be targeted for ridicule. The bottom line is that political correctness has brought a whole new perspective to what is and isn�t acceptable humor. And that�s not necessarily a good or bad thing, it�s just a reality to which people have to adjust.

In order to bring some clarity to this complicated and emotionally charged topic, it helps to put aside the issue of what is or isn�t politically correct, and look at the functionality of our humor. In other words, what healthy workplace humor is supposed to accomplish, and whether or not the way we use our humor accomplishes those purposes.

Healthy Workplace Humor

My definition of healthy workplace humor is "acts involving some sort of surprise and/or exaggeration that make people feel good." Certainly this can take the form of joke telling, but it can also take many others. Leaving a cookie on a coworker�s desk, giving an unexpected compliment, and sending an encouraging e-mail are all acts that involve some form of surprise ("Hey, I wasn�t expecting that!") and leave people feeling good.

By "making people feel good," I mean that healthy workplace humor accomplishes four main goals: It releases tension, creates a sense of acceptance, conveys a sense of unity or support, and restores a healthy perspective on a given situation. So if I�m having a bad day and someone does something humorous, chances are I�ll feel less tense, more accepting of myself and my situation, less alone, and more able to see the whole picture, whereas before I may have been fixated on just one small part of it.

These four goals of healthy humor are non-controversial - something everyone supports, regardless of their views on political correctness. We all want to work in an environment that is as tension-free as possible, where we feel accepted, supported, and able to develop a healthy perspective on the difficulties we inevitably face as working people.

So a good criteria for the functionality of our humor is to ask ourselves if how we use it promotes or undermines these four goals. And what we find is that politically incorrect humor undermines them all. Take an actual case in point. A female employee receives a surprise gift from some male coworkers. So far so good, but unfortunately, the gift contains lingerie and sexual devices. Of course workplace tension immediately shoots up, acceptance is destroyed, office unity is shattered, and now everyone is hyper-focused on the issue of sexual harassment, losing any sense of perspective they may have had. So this kind of humor is not only politically incorrect, it also creates a negative atmosphere, something no one wants in his or her workplace.

This act, which perhaps to give the benefit of the doubt may have begun as a seemingly harmless practical joke, broke some very important rules of healthy workplace humor, resulting in a lawsuit and several people losing their jobs.

Safe Humor Rules

Practicing the following four rules ensures that humor will achieve the aforementioned four goals:

#1: Don�t make jokes about coworkers� sexuality. People are very uncomfortable with sexual innuendo in a workplace. Your friends may find it hilarious, but unless all the people you work with are close friends you�ve known for years, leave it at home, because someone is bound to be offended.

#2: Don�t make jokes about people�s appearance. This is another emotionally charged area, and whether you agree or not, just don�t go there.

#3: Avoid jokes about religion, ethnic background, nationality, sexual orientation etc. unless it�s to joke about your own.

#4: Avoid jokes about bodily functions. The only exception is if you work in a healthcare or other setting where these jokes are necessary to maintain your sanity.

Surprise, surprise, these rules also conform to what would be considered the guidelines for politically correct humor, which essentially are not to make jokes about people�s sexuality, minorities, God, and, grossness. But we�re not talking politically correct, we�re talking about achieving the four goals of healthy humor, which everyone can support.

So what�s left to joke about? Here are three safe areas:

#1: Yourself, your flaws, neuroses and inadequacies. When you make these jokes, people are brought closer to you because they can relate. And so far, no one�s ever been sued for joking about him or herself.

#2: The situation you all face, i.e., the upcoming merger, the new reorganization, the difficult customers you deal with, etc.

#3: Personal characteristics in areas of low ego-involvement. Though most people are extremely sensitive about appearance, they�re much less invested in other aspects of themselves. For example, I don�t mind if someone makes jokes about my bad handwriting or the fact that I look tired because I had to get up at four in the morning to change a diaper. Poking fun at Peter because he�d rather ski than do paperwork, or Mary because she has a distinctive laugh is relatively safe to do, and communicates affection rather than disdain.

No question, the reality has changed. What used to be okay in terms of humor isn�t any more. Before it was easy to get a laugh by putting someone down. But as we�ve seen, all this creates is negativity. However, this new reality forces us to be more clever, creative, and considerate in the way we use humor. And I think that most people would like to think of themselves as clever, creative, and considerate, regardless of their views on political correctness.

� David Granirer, MA, gives laughter in the workplace presentations for hundreds of organizations throughout North America. For more information call National Speakers Bureau at 1-800-661-4110 or go to psychocomic.com

You are free to reprint any of the humor, laughter, and workplace wellness articles. If you do, please include the contact information at the bottom of each article, and send two copies to: David Granirer, 3633 Triumph Street, Vancouver, B.C. V5K 1V4, Canada. I will also send you a headshot to accompany the article if you email me to request one at david@psychocomic.com. Or to download one now click here. If you're using this article in an electronic magazine or newsletter, then please forward a copy to: david@psychocomic.com