Workplace Culture

Humor at Work: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

What kind of jokes are healthy? What kind lead to good teamwork? Social scientist Rod Martin categorized humor into four categories and research on these four categories is being carried on throughout the world. While all of these categories can be good, too much of some can be dangerous. Below are the good, the usually good, and the slippery slope types of humor.

Usually Good: “Isn’t My Life Odd?” Humor

When using this kind of humor, pick out your foibles and tell them to others – often in an exaggerated way.


  • My spelling is so bad that autocorrect is like, “I got nothing for you, man.”
  • The only good thing about being old: my supply of brain cells is down to a manageable size.
  • Sorry I’m so late. I think I got caught in a temporary cosmic rift and was sucked into a parallel universe for most of the morning.
    Or maybe that was me trying to parent my 2-year old.

Joking this way, humor researchers tell us, helps us accept difficult situations in life. People who use this style regulate their emotions well, have high self-esteem, optimism, psychological well-being, and less depression and anxiety.

Sliding Down the Slippery Slope: “Aren’t I Pathetic?” Humor

While it’s healthy to laugh at life, making too much fun of yourself can be bad for your mental health. Chris Farley, who excelled at Aren’t I Pathetic humor, had a streak of self-loathing, dying at age 33 from an overdose.

Some examples of this style:

  • I’m so dumb, I don’t think I could pass a blood test.
  • I’d like to kill myself, but I’m afraid of commitment, so I just take a lot of naps.
  • [Slowly rises from trashcan while two friends are making plans without me.] I am also free that day.

If you find you’re regularly using Aren’t I Pathetic humor, think about why. It can be a way of hiding negative feelings about yourself or making fun of yourself before a bully does.

“Aren’t You Odd or Pathetic?” Humor

This is the style political humorists use:

  • “Because it would be hilarious” is probably not a good reason to elect someone president.
  • What’s Obama’s new slogan now the economy is down? “Spare change you can believe in.”
  • Trump’s foreign policy is that if you mess with the U.S., there will be hell toupée.

This is probably harmless when we’re joking about people we don’t know, but be concerned if making jokes about others in your life – including your boss – is a staple for you. People who use primarily Aren’t You Odd humor have higher levels of neuroticism, hostility and aggression and lower levels of agreeableness and conscientiousness than others. Perhaps more significantly, use of Aren’t You Odd humor is frequently a bully’s tactic.

The Good: “Isn’t Life Funny?” Humor

With this style, you make fun of funny things that happen that we can all relate to:
• That awkward feeling when you say goodbye to someone and then it turns out you’re going the same direction as them.
• I live in constant fear that my kid will become a famous artist or painter and I will have thrown out about a trillion dollars of her work.
• Now they show you how detergents take out bloodstains: a pretty violent image there. I think if you’ve got a T-shirt with a bloodstain all over it, maybe laundry isn’t your biggest problem. Maybe you should get rid of the body before you do the wash. (Jerry Seinfeld)

Humor That Works for You

Poor humor choices in the workplace can inadvertently be negative for your team or your relationships. When you make good humor choices, you build team spirit and relationships in a way that benefits you and your workplace. And that’s no joke.

This blog is a sample from an upcoming book ACHIEVE is publishing. The book will be released January 2019.

This book will draw heavily on “A Great Place to Work” Survey. We would love to hear your input.


Mike Labun

Trainer, ACHIEVE Centre for Learning

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