Iconic TV character Michael Scott from The Office is notorious for constantly telling awful jokes to his employees. Well, according to a fascinating new study from the Yale University School of Management, he would have been better off leaving the humor to Dunder Mifflin’s female employees.
Researchers report that when a man tells a bad joke he’s usually judged more harshly by listeners than if a woman told the same quip. Men are generally seen as more unlikeable, less competent, and less attentive following a bad joke than women. These findings held up across a variety of social situations and settings, from a first date to the office breakroom.
Why are men judged more harshly when it comes to humor?
Why are women given the benefit of the doubt after a comedic misfire? It all comes down to gender stereotypes and how male and female motivations are perceived by others. It’s no secret that women have been subjected to unfair and untrue stereotypes and biases for centuries. In this case, though, the long-held belief that women are generally more selfless than men is advantageous.
When a man cracks a bad joke, most people can’t help but see it as a misguided attempt to make themselves look cool, get ahead, etc. But, if a woman makes a poor joke, it’s seen more as a genuine effort to connect with others in a positive way.
“What’s nice about humor is that it can be used in a variety of ways, and for a variety of objectives,” explains lead study author Taly Reich, an associate professor of marketing at the Yale SOM, in a university release. “You can use it to connect with people, you can use it for self-enhancement, you can use it for power, and so it allowed the people we surveyed to project whatever stereotypes they hold about women or men onto the situation they were reading about.”
Professor Reich was actually inspired to conduct this study due to the overwhelming amount of research showing how men consistently benefit from societal gender assumptions while women suffer. For example, if a man makes a mistake with an important client many may assume he was working so hard that a slight detail slipped his mind. If a woman makes that same mistake, though, some in the office may say she’s “ditsy” or absentminded.
“I was worn out with all these papers about how women always get the short end of the stick,” she comments. “It made me feel helpless, so I actively tried to figure out if there are situations where women don’t get penalized simply for being women—where, in fact, they get the benefit of the doubt.”
So, a total of nine experiments encompassing 5,400 participants were put together to research what happens when a man tells a flat joke versus the same joke told by a woman. One experiment presented some subjects with a hypothetical first date in which the man is constantly telling bad jokes that fall flat.
Meanwhile, a different group of participants was presented with the same exact scenario except the genders were reversed. After hearing the stories everyone was asked how big a mistake the joke teller had made, and how competent/likable they thought he or she was. Across the board, the male joke teller was judged more harshly than the female.
“There is the goal of the situation, and then there is the goal that I ascribe to the man or the woman telling jokes,” Prof. Reich notes. “In these studies, if I’m a woman, I’m seen as wanting to connect, and I’m using humor to do this rather than trying to enhance myself, and so I’m given the benefit of the doubt.”
A similar scenario was described to participants set in a workplace. Study subjects heard about either a male or female manager continuing to tell awful jokes during a team-building exercise with some interns. In the story, a few interns even leave the meeting room halfway through the exercise due to the bad jokes. Once again, the female manager was seen in a more positive light than the man.
Of course, these findings aren’t as cut and dry as “men should never attempt humor.” Researchers explain that much of this work hinges on the perceived intention of the joke. For instance, when participants were straight-up informed that a woman told a bad joke to “enhance themselves” as opposed to “connecting with others,” the female joke teller was judged just as harshly as men.
“So, by communicating or signaling an honest attempt to connect, anybody can be forgiven for a bad joke. And it should also be noted that we only looked at jokes that simply weren’t funny, not necessarily jokes that veered into the territory of being inappropriate or offensive,” Prof. Reich told PsyPost.
Still, this work suggests women shouldn’t be overly concerned about telling a joke or two here and there. Men, however, should think carefully before opening their mouths.
“I don’t know exactly how to say it, but maybe it’s this: men, pay more attention to your audience; women, go crazy,” she concludes.
The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.