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When to Use Humor in Business Writing: How About Never?

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Never trade boring for discomfort.

It’s such an easy trap, a mistake so often made with the best of intentions. Business writing can be so very dull, so routine. You know your coworkers are good people, well-educated and savvy. Or at least you know they appreciate a good joke. Your story about your vacation accident had them howling in the break room.

So why not lighten things up just a little with a pun or with a self-deprecating aside on that next interoffice memo, general announcement, or minutes from the meeting?

Because it’s a horrible idea, that’s why not.

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Humor Is Situational

Ever watch a comic on stage tell a joke and get a huge laugh? Have you ever told that same joke the next day and not even gotten a smile? Chances are, it’s not your delivery.

Comedy clubs don’t have two-drink minimums just to make money. They do it to make sure the crowd is liquored up. Chances are also good that the air conditioner will be on high (cold=excitable), the audience will be in dim lighting (to lower inhibitions), and everyone there has paid money for the express purpose of having a good time.

People need to be in the mood to laugh. They have to feel assured that laughter is appropriate and that the laughter is not directed at them. Surprising people with humor catches them off guard and can make them feel awkward (one reason why practical jokes are so rarely funny).

We expect to be bored with a lot of the stuff we read at work, especially when it doesn’t directly involve us or our personal responsibilities. Our primary goal in such cases is to be efficient: get it done and move on to the next task. A joke isn’t going to make us smile; it’s going to waste our time.

Humor Is Intimate

We all realize humor is personal. Different life experiences, different sorrows and joys, different associations with words and phrases: all these affect what we deem funny or sad.

But humor goes beyond that. Think of the many times you started a friendship over a shared laugh. It’s a powerful thing, snickering at the world together. An agreement over humor means finding common ground and recognizing similar philosophies and values. We pretty much all agree that the death of a child is sad. Meeting someone else who finds Aquaman jokes hilarious? Major score!

Trying to get someone to laugh may strike you as a worthy goal precisely because it’s so meaningful, but remember that business writing and reading are obligatory. The other people involved haven’t asked you to make a social bond. They just want the information they need to do their job.

Unwelcome humor can be like a handshake from a stranger that lasts a little too long. The hanger-on may be trying to make a memorable impression, but the other person probably just feels uncomfortable.

Humor Is Fleeting; E-mails Are Forever

A real danger of humor in business writing is that we are removed from the effects of our joke. Crack a joke in a meeting that no one laughs at, and you can do some damage control, turning the joke on yourself or just acknowledging that your timing was off. With a little luck, everyone but you will forget about it in time.

A written joke is immortal, and once e-mailed or messaged, it lives forever outside your control. You have no idea whose eyes may see it or in what situation your joke may suddenly appear. Without context, words can be made to mean anything. A lighthearted pun to a friend may well be seen as a company-slamming bit of sexual harassment by an enemy—who will then make it a mission in life to make sure everyone else sees it that way as well.

When Is Humor OK in Business?

Humor is fine when it’s expected. The story in the break room was good because your coworkers were open to the experience. Funny memos get posted on bulletin boards. Humorous e-mails should be forwarded to personal accounts to be read at home or during lunch. A funny sign or two on the wall can go up in an office where its residents know what’s going on and like it. You can even tell a joke in the invitation to the office Christmas party.

Just keep in mind: humor is a social overture, and a risky one too.

Julia H.

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