Joke's on the boss: the power of office humour

Last updated 05:00 09/02/2013

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Victoria University researchers have found out what Ricky Gervais could have told them 10 years ago: Office humour is as much about power as it is about comedy.

It keeps bosses on their toes and breaks down managerial hierarchies, according to a recently published study by Meredith Marra, researcher at the Wellington Language in the Workplace programme. That's important in New Zealand, she says, where workers have a low tolerance for power inequalities.

But bosses also use humour to disarm their underlings and re-establish their superiority - often through jokes about that superiority. "Humour signals awareness by both managers and subordinates of the hierarchical roles they play at work . . . Thus, we see managers and other dominant participants humorously drawing attention to their overt displays of power, as well as subordinates using humour to expose the limits on their power . . ."

That's more or less a description of David Brent and his underlings in Gervais' comedy series The Office.

"In our recent research, even the most humourless of meetings averaged an instance of humour every six minutes," the article says.

Humour in meetings is "endemic", challenging the preconception that meetings are all about serious issues.

Jokes are broken in meetings as a "solidarity device" among colleagues, but also as a subservience tool to undermine the authority of superiors. In fact, subordinates were found to joke more with bosses than they did among friends.

"[Research] data contained extensive use of humour, which functioned to subvert. In the workplace context . . . subversive humour amounted to 40 per cent of the total instances of humour, with rates per minute at levels 10 times above the levels identified in friendship group interactions (a context where participants enjoy greater equality)."

Or, as David Brent put it: "You just have to accept that some days you are the pigeon, and some days you are the statue."

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- The Dominion Post

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