Sarcasm vs. humor in the workplace

A rabbi, a priest, an imam, and a porn star walk into a bar … if you think a joke with that intro counts as appropriate workplace humor, you probably haven’t been paying enough attention. So, what does count as the right kind of humor and is sarcasm every an appealing option?

A few professional wits weighed in on the appropriate use of humor in the workplace.

Humor can get you noticed: “Humor is a way that you can leave a memorable or lasting impression,” said writer/producer Alana Sanko. “If your email or cover note is among a stack of other applicants, the right use of humor can make you stand out.”

Make it matter: Don’t just slip in a joke or emoji for effect. Sanko said that as beneficial as humor at work or in meetings is, you should always try to be meaningful and honest: “People want to connect, and sharing a laugh with someone is an all-around positive (often bonding) experience.” Don’t overdo it. “A little can go a long way. Don’t want to push humor at the expense of coming across as not serious about whatever it is you’re discussing,” she added.

Use humor as a tool: “Humor is a great way to deflect situations and win over coworkers and clients. No one wants to be around a sad sack. But everyone loves to be around an upbeat, funny person,” said publicist and comic Jackie Saril. “I lost my younger brother and best friend close together and I healed myself through laughter. I decided to learn stand up to make others laugh.”

But maybe not in an email: Unless you know someone personally, try to keep things professional. “I’ve learned the hard way that humor and Outlook invites do NOT mix,” said writer Claire Zulkey who runs literary humor reading series Funny Ha-Ha. Zulkey says she hasn’t worked in an office for a while, but learned if she has something funny to say, in-person is preferable to email. Zulkey tries to tone down her friendly vibe. “I’m fine with my professional emails being less personable. Work-wise it’s just too risky you might catch somebody on a bad day, or they misread something, and it’s just embarrassing and a time-waster.”

Use measured sarcasm, if at all: “I tend to be sarcastic in my private life and more upbeat onstage,” said Saril. “Of course, sarcasm does appear in my act. Especially if I’m talking about politics. Which I try not to.”

Sanko believes sarcasm can be a turnoff. Before you add snark to a conversation, think carefully: “Do you know the person at all? Do you have any friends or colleagues in common that might give you a sense of someone’s sensitivities? It’s a complicated process and too sensitive for the work environment.”

Mean what you say (don’t meme what you say): Even if things are tense at work, don’t go for the easiest laugh. “Something that depresses me is going online and seeing how many people think they’re funny using the same jokes. ‘Oh, you’re using that Gene Wilder meme? Tell me more,’ ” Zulkey said. For that reason, she’s tightened her social media circle “because if I try to be funny and it fails, at least it’s in front of people who know me [in real life].” She also no longer tries to be the most interesting one in the group. “The cachet of saying the edgiest thing or having the hottest take has really worn off for me in the last couple of years,” Zulkey added. “What if I die and the last tweet I made was about hating my children and I wasn’t alive to defend it as the hilarious joke that it is?”

Be true to yourself (and personal brand): Whoopi Goldberg was executive producer of a show Sanko wrote for Nickelodeon and she continues to develop with Goldberg and the president of her company, Tom Leonardis. Sanko cited Goldberg as an example of authenticity in humor. “When she speaks about issues (often on The View) she’s not just speaking as a movie star, she’s a woman, a mother, a grandmother and a great-grandmother who has lots of perspective and a natural ability to use humor to bring her audience together.” Though what she says isn’t always popular, “She doesn’t do it to get a shock reaction,” Sanko said. “It really does come from whatever she believes and I think that when her true fans disagree, they at least respect her opinion.”

Sanko offered tips to inject more humor at work or in emails:

  • If it’s not a formal situation, you can try to write like you talk, using dashes (—) or punctuation that will emphasize you’re not being serious.
  • Less is more. You want to leave them wanting more, not wear out your welcome.
  • Avoid anything controversial, especially with someone you really don’t know — it can be distracting and you could accidentally offend someone.
  • If you’re sending a thank you note and there is something you can call back from your meeting with a bit of humor, that can really be effective and put a nice callback button on your engagement.

At the end of the day, Sanko reminds us, “There is always someone out there you can and will offend and depending on the situation you have to gauge the pros and cons of the risk.”