Contagious Laughter by Richard Foster on Flickr

Cracking a joke can prove tricky to execute overall, especially within a professional environment. Navigating the concept of comedy at work, can be a challenge. Comedy within a work space of varying cultures, is an even greater challenge. In honor of April as National Humor Month, consider these four tips to ensure jokes are not only office appropriate, but sensitive to the cultures of your fellow office mates as well.

  1. Know Your Audience: Resist the temptation to tell jokes or share memes or funny videos with first-time clients or upper-level management. Even if a comment may “seem harmless” or said “only in jest”, it’s important to know to whom you are speaking. What may be silly to you may offend another, especially if you are only acquaintances or unfamiliar with that individual. To be on the safe side, use office-appropriate humor only with colleagues you know well.
  2. ‘Office Appropriate’: Jokes perpetuating gender or cultural stereotypes, religion, age, or ethnicity are inherently offensive. Profane, lewd, or explicit jokes are also always off-limits in the workplace. If you wouldn’t say it on a live television broadcast as the representative for your entire organization, don’t share, send or say it to coworkers.This rule extends to break rooms as, even there, a professional decorum is expected. These kinds of quips not only cause office tension, but also have the ability to ruin business deals or potentially lead you to the unemployment line.
  3. Delivery: Even if you stick to the outlined rules of office appropriate, it’s important to keep in mind that it’s not always what you say, but how you say it. In a 2016 study, Doctors Urszula Michalik and Iwona Sznicer recognized that, “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,” when it comes to landing a joke. Body language is vital to how one may receive comedy. Timing as well should be considered key to delivery. It is best to read the air of the room, meeting, or situation prior to joking. Colleagues attending a relaxed, routine meeting may be more receptive to humor, than managers in a serious disciplinary or performance review.
  4. Responding: Professional individuals are responsible for not only jokes told, but also for those laughed at as well. Choosing to laugh at a coworker’s inappropriate or insensitive remark is an indirect way of condoning offensive humor – why be included with those held responsible? If a coworker shares an offensive joke, avoid participating with laughter. Instead consider gently explaining to colleagues why the joke is hurtful, rather than humorous to people of a particular culture.

Appropriate humor within a professional environment can benefit client and co-worker relationships. The ability to share a laugh contributes to bonding with colleagues. Though the concept of comedy is universal, what is humorous is not. When in any professional environment, be sure to keep this concept in mind before sharing an image, video or joke.  Consider audience, delivery, content, and whether or not to participate, when it comes to humor in the workplace.


Sharon Schweitzer and A.Hannah Alvarado co-wrote this post. Sharon Schweitzer, J.D., is a cross-cultural trainer, attorney, modern manners expert, and the founder of Access to Culture. In addition to her accreditation in intercultural management from the HOFSTEDE Centre and the Intercultural Communication Institute, 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, and Fortune. Her Amazon #1 Best Selling book in International Business, Access to Asia: Your Multicultural Business Guide (Wiley 2015), 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.

Continuing her higher education at Texas State University, A.Hannah is set receive her Bachelor’s Degree in English, in 2019. She is a native Texan with a background in writing, sales, social media marketing and customer service. Hannah aspires to perfect her passion of writing in the hopes of becoming a novelist. With all the fantastic opportunities offered at Access to Culture, she is excited to be a new member of the team. Connect with her at Hannah Alvarado.