I have lately seen people commenting on and questioning humour in various situations, so I thought I too reflect a little on this subject. I feel there are a place and time for everything. This also concerns humour. In most situations, humour is ok, but in some not – anyone who has got a good upbringing at home knows without saying when humour is improper. If someone sitting down at the coffee table at work tells that my dog died last night, my phone was stolen or I was fired yesterday, everyone knows that this is not a situation where you start telling jokes.

Definition and purpose of humour (my definition):

I feel good humour is warm, goodhearted, funny, and respectful. The goal is to generate a “feel good” mood for other people (and yourself), and without intentionally offending or hurting anyone.

If you ask people what good humour is, the beauty is always in the eyes of the beholder. But if you follow my definition of humour above and understand what good behaviour means, I think you manage well in most situations. (Unfortunately, there exist also people practising bad, tasteless, and offending humour. Ignore them, and they will stop or walk away.)

Good humour, defined as above, is, in my mind, one of the most important “skills” we can have. Humour helps us through many difficult and challenging situations in our life, both at work and in our private life.

Personally, many of my best memories from work relate to situations where good humour has been strongly present. And when I recall the many good lifelong friends and buddies, I have got over the years from various workplaces, I can only say that here humour has had a tremendous impact. We would today hardly have much contact with each other if we at work only had sat with a wrinkled forehead and solemn mind only wandering about dead serious work issues from dawn to dust.

In my first job, I stayed for seven years, in the second 11 years, in the third 22 years. I am proud of my career and what I achieved. When I look back, what do you think I remember? Sure, I remember my job was both motivating and rewarding, how I conquered many challenges and made many victories. But what I count as my most significant memory is, I remember how darn fun I had working together with my all-fantastic work colleagues.

Of my last workplace, I can say:  Not a day passed by without hearing laughter from some room. This was true for all the 22 years I worked there. We had good days, we had bad days, we had stormy days – but we never had a day without laughter. There is no law saying that demanding, challenging, sometimes very hard work is not allowed to be fun. If you take away the word “fun” from the equation, what remains left is rather boring, don’t you think? Everything said, I feel good humour at work is an advantage and a benefit.

I would even argue that good humour in a company, is a strategic competitive advantage compared to workplaces that do not have humour.

Sometimes humour is born out of situations, that at the moment are anything but funny, but, which, besides giving you a good teaching, also, later, may give you many good laughs.

Three examples from my career:

As a young consultant, I was once with an older colleague of mine, on one of my very first sales visits to a customer. We were trying to sell a service product to the sales director of a small company. We decided to give a little lower price because we thought a small company could not afford us otherwise. However, when we arrived, we found out that a big multi-billion company had just bought the company we were visiting and that the board of the buyer company was on the premises, checking out what they had bought.  The board wanted to meet us too. When they asked for our price, for some inconceivable reason, I started thinking that a big company has a lot of money, and I felt I needed to show that good quality costs more. So, I gave them a price that was double our standard price. There was a terrible silence in the room.

I felt, my forehead sweating, that everyone was looking at me with big eyes, including my colleague. Then the board chairman said, that is a relatively high price, how do you justify it. My problem was that there was no way I could do it. I had drawn the price from the hat, so to say. But I had to say something, so I started talking. The little processor that I also call my brain only had room for five words simultaneously. I did not have a clue, as to what to say when I had completed the last word. I thought I was going to faint. However, somehow, after a deep breath, five new words always appeared from somewhere into my processor. I knew that this was not going to be the best performance of my life for sure. I was certain no one understood anything (my colleague confirmed afterwards that he did not understand anything either). I think it was only the board members’ excellent upbringing and the fact that they felt sorry for a young unexperienced consultant that stopped them from giving me the lesson of my life. As you can imagine, we did not get any sales that day, but we survived – and I got good teaching of how one should not do on a sales call.

And my colleague kept laughing in the car with tears in his eyes all the way back to work. And when my other colleagues at work heard of what I had done, they laughed. Finally, after I had recovered from the shock, I too laughed, and I have also laughed many times later, to what happened.

Another story. I was visiting a client with a colleague of mine. We were checking a group of potential candidates in a recruiting situation, among them a person we both knew well. Then the client said, “You both know this person. Could he suit this position?” I can still remember how we answered. We answered simultaneously. I said NO, and my colleague said YES. My colleague and I looked at each other. I believe both were thinking, do you perhaps want to continue from here? Then the client said, well, how is it, YES or NO? It turned out that my colleague had some information about this person that I did not know, which explained our difference of opinion, so it was not such a big disaster after all. But we learned that simultaneous NO and YES answers in a customer meeting are perhaps not to an advantage.  I think we have had a few good laughs about this experience too.

Then the last example is about how you can come out of an awkward situation as a winner.  I visited the daughter company of a big international multi-billion company to report what I had done. The Finnish CEO, the Director of Europe, and the company’s global HR-director were present at the meeting. I started my presentation by walking to the whiteboard, took a marker pen in my hand and started writing text on the whiteboard. Suddenly I realised that I had an ordinary marker pen in my hand, not a whiteboard pen, which meant that the text I had written on the whiteboard was not going to be erased anytime soon, if ever. Everyone else noticed this too. I can tell you it was embarrassing. I stood right in front of the coffee thermos on the table, seeing that all the coffee cups were empty. To get out of the situation, I asked if I could fill them up. I started pouring, but the thermos was unfamiliar and a little unbalanced, so when I poured, the coffee came out with force, not going into the cup, but over the cup and straight on the white tablecloth. I could have died right there. But everyone started laughing. They knew what I was experiencing.

Finally, I got to give my report, and with that, they were all extraordinarily satisfied. I continued to work with this client for many years, and we later had many good laughs together about what happened to me that day. So did my colleagues when I told them about what had happened.

Even though all the situations I talked about here were embarrassing and should never have happened, they have also given many good laughs afterwards. These three short stories illustrate how humour can mend difficult and painful experiences and turn them into” funny” memories that make you laugh.

I read somewhere that someone was asking if humour is ok in an interview situation. I feel it is perfectly ok.  I have been present in thousands of interviews, and I cannot remember even one, where we did not have a few laughs or at least a few smiles. A smile does not cost anything. When you smile, others smile back. I believe a friendly smile always has the potential can create a good atmosphere, while a completely humourless dead solemn approach may do just the opposite.

At last, I like to repeat what I said earlier:

I would even argue that good humour in a company, is a strategic competitive advantage compared to workplaces that do not have humour.

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