Comedy may make you 'one of the boys' Light touch gives air of self-confidence.

Working women

May 06, 1991|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

Don't laugh, but women are being encouraged to display a sense of humor in -- of all places -- the office.

It may tickle your funny bone to know that magazine articles, books and even workshops by "humor consultants" are seriously encouraging women to add a hearty laugh to their daily routines, incorporating it into other work and family responsibilities.

If you're comedic enough, the laugh experts say, you will be accepted as "one of the boys," experience less stress and have a rapid climb up the corporate ladder. That is, they warn, if you don't offend anyone with your humor, which wouldn't be funny no matter who does it.

Can we talk? It's also important not to go the Phyllis Diller or Joan Rivers route of self-deprecation, which makes millions for them but could seriously undercut your corporate image and future earnings. In other words, it's OK to have a belly laugh now and then, as long as it's not at the expense of your belly.

Working Woman magazine may be laughing up its executive sleeve when it says "a light touch doesn't make a manager less respected on the contrary, it's a way of conveying authority and self-confidence." Hopefully, the magazine is not implying that you can't crack the glass ceiling because you don't crack enough jokes.

Let's hope they're not blaming a lack of a sense of humor as the serious reason women don't get promoted. Actually, so few women have top executive positions that it would be depressing to check out exactly what role mirth really plays among those chosen few.

But there's no doubt the light touch has a role to play at work, even though C.W. Metcalf, a Colorado-based business consultant who specializes in humor, may go too far when he predicts laughing will result in less absenteeism. Perhaps he envisions women holding laugh-ins at the office instead of missing work to attend parent-teacher meetings or to take care of sick family members.

One positive aspect of the rib-tickling advice that women start joking at work is this: At last it's OK for women to attempt to enter the humor arena, an area long dominated by men. Funny Frank, the office humorist, traditionally has enough pull to string his colleagues along without jeopardizing for a moment his smooth flow into the executive suite. Unlike Funny Frank, few women are greeted with hoots of laughter when they say, "Take my boss. Please."

Although the standup comedians -- who also tell female workers how to dress, what to say and when to say it -- who now are pushing women to make no bones about being humorous often are well-meaning, they can also be dangerous: They may be trying to steer woman toward jokes instead of toward well-documented discrimination suits filed with the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission.

But humor is serious business, and before you try it at work -- especially if you are the sole support of your family -- you may want to think about some other factors that nobody else ever tells you about, even in jest.

For positive reasons, most of the following suggestions start with "don't" and "never":

* Don't attempt to be humorous on the days you wear your navy blue dressed-for-success suit with white shirt and tie or scarf. People will think you're a man, and you won't get promoted or get credit for being a woman who is witty and reduces stress.

* Never, ever make jokes about such things as childbirth, breast-feeding, menstrual periods or menopause. In the first place, it's best that your male colleagues never know that you sometimes find these subjects hilarious. Secondly, personal matters should not be the subjects of humor. When's the last time you heard a man joke about being bald?

* Don't make light of the many responsibilities you have both at work and home -- even if you have the strength to talk about them. Subjects such as child care, elder care, flexible hours, job-sharing, family and medical leave and on-site day-care centers should never be mentioned in jest. Joking about these benefits, so important to all working people yet new to the workplace, might set back their introduction by about 10 years.

* Never make nasty, vicious, snide, and therefore very funny, comments about your supervisors, managers or chief executive officers. Unless they're not present.

It is OK to joke about how you were taken for a ride when you went to buy a car or how the roof fell in when you found out what it would cost to rehab your home or how lousy your season tickets are for the games. These are tried-and-true subjects of humor, ones men are familiar with and which will not confuse anyone about what's important in life.

The deluge of advice to women about joking in the office is reminiscent of the flood of information in the 1980s about crying in the office. Women all agreed that crying is OK and to suppress it would be too stressful. Men agreed that crying is not OK and that women should suppress it anyway.

Whatever your feelings about shedding tears in the office, there isn't much ambivalence about making jokes. It's not a bad idea, and many employed women know for sure that it's better to laugh than to cry.

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