Did you hear the one about the guy whose favourite joke got him fired?
People depend on humour to let off steam, bond with their friends and colleagues and help them through difficult situations. But increasingly, concerns about being unintentionally offensive have some people trying to stifle themselves.
There's no excuse for a racist or sexist joke, but even humour that is not intended to be inappropriate can be perceived that way, creating all sorts of problems in the workplace.
"Humour can be misused and misinterpreted easily, and we have to be sensitive to that," said Shirley Trout, president of the national Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor. "We, who enjoy humour and recognize its benefits, have to be very careful to modify it according to the environment."
Trout said people need to know and trust their colleagues before they cut loose with humour. Those in particularly high-stress occupations such as law enforcement, medicine and emergency services form their own workplace culture, where shared experiences and an atmosphere of trust can create a strong sense of teamwork.
"Safe humour really is culturally specific," Trout said. "Those kinds of cultural groups exist largely in areas where you have really similar work experiences. In health care, there's a type of gallows humour that's specific to nurses or specific to doctors or emergency services. ... They cannot safely take that same humour outside of that environment because it can be misinterpreted."
Lt. Huey Thornton, public information officer for the Montgomery, Ala., Police Department, said there is a time and a place for humour.
"Society looks at police officers and, in my opinion, they want to see someone who is professional, who is about business, not someone who is joking," Thornton said. "Once a stressful situation is over, they may make jokes ... to release the tension and ease the moment."
People can avoid misunderstandings by paying attention to their surroundings.
Trout said, "We really are in an age of litigation. We just have to be aware that when we're in the work environment, we represent the company as a whole, not just our individual interests."
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