From harmless puns and silly memes, to stereotypical jokes and shady sarcasm, humor is a diverse concept with a slightly different meaning for everyone. Whether you consider yourself a born jokester, or prefer to keep a serious profile, it’s vital to understand humor’s place in a professional environment, especially if the workplace is multicultural. As global etiquette author Dean Foster warns, “no amount of skill will ensure the success of a joke if the content and style are culturally insensitive.” In honor of National Humor Month this April, consider these four tips for ensuring all your jokes are culturally sensitive and office-appropriate.

  1. Off-Limit Offenses: If you wouldn’t say it in front of your boss, it shouldn’t be said, shared, or sent to coworkers. Even break rooms have a professional decorum to be respected; you never know who’s listening next door. While profane, lewd, or explicit jokes have always been off-limits in the workplace, they are certainly prohibited in the wake of #MeToo. Jokes about cultural stereotypes, religion, or ethnicity are inherently offensive. Making these kinds of quips can cause office tension, ruin business deals, and land you in deep yogurt with HR.
  2. Consider Delivery: As Dr. Urszula Michalik and Iwona Sznicer demonstrate in their 2016 study on cross-cultural humor, “It is not only what is said that matters, but how it is said, by whom and in what context. Tone, gesture, and expression largely contribute to the meaning of a message. What is behind the words is as important as the words themselves.” Even if your joke seems harmless, an aggressive delivery or sarcastic tone may offend regardless. To be on the safe side, use office-appropriate humor only with colleagues who know you well. Resist the temptation to tell jokes with first-time clients or upper-level management who may be offended.
  3. Context is Key: Although a U.S. manager may open a presentation in the U.S. with a joke to lighten the mood, the French wouldn’t dream of compromising formality for a chuckle. British business professionals often use wordplay and ambiguity to convey their subtle brand of humor. A 2016 qualitative study by a team of international researchers found that while Westerners tend to tolerate and use humor more than those from Eastern cultures do, the situation and social context in which humor is used plays a major role in how it’s perceived. Before making a joke, consider whether the current situation calls for seriousness, or if it’s a light atmosphere appropriate for a little humor.
  4. Responding Respectfully: Always remember that what you laugh at is as important as what you yourself say. Laughing at a co-worker’s inappropriate or insensitive remark is an indirect manner of condoning offensive humor, so think carefully before reacting. If the joke was culturally insensitive or stereotyping, consider gently explaining to your colleague why the joke is hurtful, rather than humorous to people of a particular culture. Providing cultural insight into the joke’s true nature may heighten cultural sensitivity and prevent a repeat incident.

While humor is a universal concept, types of humor are not, so keep this in mind before making a joke in any workplace. Consider your audience, context, and content when deciding whether a joke is office-appropriate.

Sharon Schweitzer and Amanda Alden co-wrote this post. Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural trainer, modern manners expert, and the founder of Access to Culture. In addition to her accreditation in intercultural management from the HOFSTEDE centre, she serves as a Chinese Ceremonial Dining Etiquette Specialist in the documentary series Confucius was a Foodie, on Nat Geo People. She is the resident etiquette expert on two popular lifestyle shows: ABC Tampa Bay’s Morning Blend and CBS Austin’s We Are Austin. She is regularly quoted by BBC Capital, Investor’s Business Daily, Fortune, and the National Business Journals. Her Amazon #1 Best Selling book in International Business,  Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide, now in its third printing, was named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books of 2015. She’s a winner of the British Airways International Trade Award at the 2016 Greater Austin Business Awards and the 2017 New York City Big Book Award for Multicultural Nonfiction.

Amanda Alden is an intercultural research assistant with Access to Culture. She graduated with honors from St. Edward’s University with a major in Global Studies and a minor in French, and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in Intercultural Mediations at l’Université de Lille III. Feel free to connect with Amanda at on LinkedIn.

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