Have you ever wondered whether to laugh at a potentially racist/sexist joke? Does not saying anything against a discriminatory joke mean that you’re complying with the view expressed? Snéha Khilay discusses workplace jokes and banter and reflects on how to decide where to draw a line.
With legislative changes and controversy surrounding ‘political correctness’, managers ask: What about workplace banter and jokes? Have we have become so clinical and sterile that, with the slightest whiff of what could be construed as an ‘offensive’ word or joke, staff and managers rush for cover under the hail of “You shouldn’t / can’t say that”, “It’s not allowed”, “You should know better”, “You are in trouble”…
This risks creating a work culture where jokes and banter are no longer permissible in case they offend someone. Worse still, will office humour be reduced to ‘knock knock’ jokes (though these can sometimes be considered as offensive if too childish)?
I am increasingly aware that many jokes have a discriminatory element. I have noticed more minority ethnic comedians (male and female) who make jokes about themselves and their background – often with an exaggerated accent – to emphasise their point. Is it acceptable for the audience, whether at a show or at work, to ‘join in’ and/or approve deprecating comments by laughing at them?
On the one hand, laughing at jokes relating to racial characteristics when racism goes unchallenged maintains a stereotype thereby reinforcing racism. Alternately, it could be argued that, by making us aware of our prejudices, we are challenged to change our views. There is a very fine line between exploring taboos and perpetuating prejudices which the best comedians manage to walk.
What about a comedian or a colleague sharing their experience of racism/sexism etc. by turning it into a joke? This could be interpreted as a coping mechanism – a way of denying the pain/hurt or asserting that ‘I can rise above this’, by choosing to laugh at the foolishness of a comment/act.
What about jokes to ‘build rapport’ or ‘break the ice’? I recently arrived 15 minutes late at a meeting as I’d got lost. One Director made a stereotypical comment about ‘women drivers’. Given that this was my first meeting with the individual concerned I sensed that this was a rather clumsy attempt to be friendly, I didn’t challenge the comment as it didn’t feel right to do so. It would make it difficult to build rapport. That said, I was (uncomfortably) conscious that my silence could be interpreted as condoning his statement.
Over the years I seem to have developed a ‘sliding scale’ so that some comments – like ‘women drivers’ are ‘towards acceptable’ and not worth challenging whereas others, like a warning bell, demand an immediate response. Does this mean that, when a negative comment, for instance about women drivers, is made repeatedly, over time, it becomes acceptable? Further, should colleagues/managers, irrespective of the nature of the joke, ‘humour’ or ‘challenge’ the comment? What about when a person apologises immediately after making the joke that has a discriminatory undertone? Some managers have told me it leaves them with a dilemma whether they should take any further action in such cases.
There is a time and place for satire – the therapeutic value of humour has long been recognised. And humour helps people to bond, especially when dealing with difficult situations. However, whether or not you find a joke funny, because at the most basic level, jokes are personal, your reaction is ‘correct’. You either laugh or you don’t. As they say, “One person’s sense of humour is another’s insult.”
The Roman thinker, Cicero, thought jokes exhibiting refinement and cleverness could win over an audience. But it’s easy to make the mistake of being vulgar or inappropriate when trying to be funny. Jokes should come from genuine respect of different cultures, rather than an intention to degrade or humiliate.
A motivational speaker, speaking in Japan, had his speech translated as he spoke. He told some elaborate jokes, which he feared would not translate well. To his delight and surprise, the audience laughed hysterically at every joke. As he left, the speaker congratulated the translator on his brilliant rendering of subtle English humour and asked “How did you manage to get all those jokes?” “Oh, I didn’t bother,” the translator replied. “I just said, ‘he is making joke now, please laugh’.”
Snéha Khilay is a diversity and leadership consultant/trainer. She specialises in supporting organisations in meeting their statutory equality and diversity requirements. Snéha carries out consultancy and training on Diversity and Inclusion, Managing Diversity and the Law, Cultural Competency, Dignity at Work and Conflict Resolution. She conducts independent investigations and mediation for organisations into allegations of bullying and harassment. Snéha has published articles on diversity and leadership in Management Today, Start Your Business, Simply Business, Professional Manager, Change Board, People and People Management. Visit Snéha’s website at www.bluetuliptraining.co.uk