Psychology of Humor: Why Being Funny Makes Business Sense

When it comes to business, humor is no laughing matter.

After all, anyone who has been anywhere knows that funny does not translate or cross cultural borders. This means that humor needs to be tampered in the business world. To let the funny fly, the learned business gurus say, is to confuse and offend your audience.

But, are the sages correct? Doesn’t everyone like to laugh?

Actually, there is another thread of thought that has been best summed up by copywriter Morty Schiller as, “People don’t buy from sourpusses.” Truer words have rarely been spoken. I know that I for one have walked away from doing business with said sourpusses. However, my position is that Schiller’s words are just the start. The sentence should read, “People don’t buy from sourpusses, nor do they want to work for them.”

Odds are that you have seen the Dodge Durango ad campaign featuring Will Farrell as Ron Burgundy that seems to be everywhere. Well, despite Burgundy’s awkward attempts to sing the praises of the car along with his outright insults of the vehicle — he told Conan O’Brien that “It’s a terrible car. They gave me one for free, and I drove it four feet and the thing cracked in half” — the edgy comedic campaign is indeed doing what it was intended to do: move units. In the first month of the ad campaign, sales of the 2014 Dodge Durango skyrocketed 59 percent.

Yes, being funny can and does make business sense. It also makes sense within the office. A recent study by the Bell Leadership Institute learned that people want to work for leaders with a strong work ethic and a good sense of humor. On the other side of the org-chart spectrum, more than 90 percent of executives feel that a sense of humor helps with career advancement, according to a Robert Half International survey.

But, businesses and offices cannot afford to go all willy-nilly with their use humor. It is a tool that must be used the correct way and at the proper times. And, to do this, you have got to understand the psychology of humor.

There are three theories that explain what people find funny.

The incongruity theory occurs when one outcome is expected but another one happens. Steven Wright, the king of droll one-liners, has made a living mining this theory. Wright’s “I spilled spot remover on my dog. Now he’s gone.” is funny because its first line makes us think that the story will be about how dirty the dog now is or how Wright ended up cleaning the dog. Then, when the story goes in the totally unexpected direction of the dog, Spot, disappearing, the audience’s thoughts and feelings change direction as well giving them new emotions and ideas. Experiencing different sets of incongruent thoughts and emotions is funny.

The very common superiority theory occurs when people laugh at other people’s misfortune, stupidity or mistakes. Though businesses have to be cautious with the use of this theory since this humor may be mean spirited, there are plenty examples of the superiority theory being used effectively to include Domino Pizza’s Avoid the Noid and Apple’s cool Apple guy vs. the PC nerd spots.

The relief theory occurs when a situation creates tension which is then broken by an unexpected happening or humorous comment. The Aflac duck often finds himself in these situations, which end up with the duck in the less-than-favorable position of, say, trying to plug numerous holes in a boat all at a single time.

But now the question is, “Why does humor work for business and in offices?”

Funny advertising works for businesses because it attracts attention, holds it, and then focuses it. This happens because humor gives people an emotional charge. The trick is to give audiences the type of emotional charge you want them to have, a positive one. This is why humor using the sometimes mean-spirited superiority theory can be hazardous to a business’s or office’s health.

Humor works in the office because no one wants to spend 40 or more hours a week in a dry, stuffy, and completely-serious workplace. Specifically, humor works in the workplace because it:

  • Breaks stress
  • Gives morale a lift
  • Creates trust and builds relationships
  • Is a vital important ingredient to creativity
  • Makes everyone a little bit more human
  • Helps organizations stand out from their competitors

Creating a fun and humorous environment at work does not mean bosses need to be stand up comedians. No, bringing humor to the office can as simple as adding funny cartoons to the company’s newsletter, opening all internal meetings with a joke contest, having regularly scheduled functions that encourage staff to get to know one another (people who know each other, joke with each other), and holding other contests such as correctly naming baby pictures, wearing the funkiest hat, and getting a paper airplane to fly the furthest.

Go ahead. Give it a try. Bring humor to your business and create positive emotional charges for your office mates and clients. Funny simply makes sense.

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