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Maintaining mindfulness in our use of humor

    • 143 posts
    October 8, 2018 6:56 PM EDT

    In spite of our best intentions, an attempt to be funny or inject humor into any given situation can backfire on us.  Whether it's among family, friends or co-workers, words said in jest can still sting, be hurtful, or even be perceived as offensive. 

    So, why am I writing about being humorous?!? Well, because day to day - regardless of one's profession, education status, or employment - we all may use humor as a means of “breaking the ice,” putting someone else at ease, or for helping to bring relief to stress and tension in a difficult moment of time. In their workplace a leader, supervisor, or teacher may draw on humor in an effort to promote a positive, upbeat environment, collegiality, and camaraderie among co-workers and peers.

    I recently came across an interesting research article that examined the effect of an instructor’s use of humor - in the college science classroom setting - on their students and students’ perceptions. 

    The basis for this study was centered around the commonly held belief that humor positively impacts engagement and learning in the classroom - however, according to the authors, no formal study had examined this in the context of college science courses “which are often perceived as difficult and competitive” or “stressful.” The authors also remind us that though many students may find their instructor’s to be “funny,” other students may not, and could potentially perceive their humor as offensive. 

    This publication reported on college science students':

    1. Level of appreciation of an instructor’s use of humor in the classroom.

    2. Level of attention and sense of belonging when instructor’s used humor, and the effect of gender on what was or was not found to be funny or offensive.

    3. Joke subject matter found to funny, unfunny, or offensive.

    Although most of the findings are expected and understood, I do believe that information revealed from this study of college science students can serve to remind us of the potentially negative effects of humor when used among those we work or play with or supervise.

    So what did they find? 

    Well, as most of us would expect, the vast majority of students (over 98%) appreciated an instructor’s use of humor in the classroom and indicated it positively impacted the atmosphere, their experience in the classroom, and their relationship with the instructor. Nearly ΒΌ of the students also indicated that an instructor’s use of humor in the classroom enhanced their attention, learning, and retention of the material. That's all really good.

    But what if their instructors were not so funny and jokes fall flat? Well, when students perceived their instructor's humor to be “unfunny,” there were no adverse impacts on their attention, learning, or sense of belonging in the classroom. They simply didn’t find their instructors or jokes to be funny. When “unfunny” was also perceived as “offensive” however, there were several negative impacts on students including their sense of belonging among others in the classroom and on their sense of the instructor’s relatability. As one might expect, the study did find an effect of gender in what was or was not perceived as offensive. 

    So what subject matter for jokes is universally funny? The top 3 subjects that were deemed funny and seemingly “safe” among the majority of students - irrespective of gender and age - were jokes about science, college, and television. Others included food puns, animals, and sports.  

    Subject matter that was considered potentially “offensive” included jokes about social identity (including: disability, religion or faith, gender, ethnicity or race, sexual identity, and sexual orientation). Females were more likely to find jokes about social identity offensive compared to males. Other potentially offensive subjects included jokes about body weight, genitalia, old people, divorce, sex, politics, farts or poop.

    The researchers concluded that the majority of students appreciated use of humor by their instructors in college science classrooms, and that humor construed as offensive serves to alienate students in their sense of belonging and their instructor’s relatability. Furthermore, there are significant gender differences in what is generally perceived as offensive.

    Our world is an ever evolving “melting pot,” and social identities may or may not be apparent or visible to us. If we’re to take anything away from this information it’s to remember that if we’re going to use humor in our interactions we should stick to universally accepted jokes that perhaps relate to cute animals, television, food, and sports (or perhaps related to our chosen profession among peers). As if you haven’t heard it before, we’d all be wise to keep jokes about politics, sex, gender, age, religion, and sexual identity and orientation to ourselves. At a minimum they should be kept out of the workplace.