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How to Use Humor at Work Without Acting Like a Jerk

How to Use Humor at Work Without Acting Like a Jerk
Image credit: NBC

Ever thought you had the perfect joke, shared it with a colleague, and it fell flat? Or worse -- offended someone? We spoke with several professional comedians who shared their best tips to let your natural humor shine through in the workplace, without the funny business.

1. Know your audience.
"People have all different levels of senses of humor," says Dan Nainan, a former Intel engineer turned professional standup comic. Just because some people find something funny, doesn't mean everyone will. For example, at Intel Nainan was written up for impressions he performed of his boss at the annual sales conference. He had performed before senior executives and they loved his impressions, but he hadn't cleared it with his boss first, who wasn't pleased.

"What a comic can get away with at a comedy club or on TV may be inappropriate in the workplace," Nainan says. "What matters is how it affects someone else," he says. "In the workplace, err on the side of caution. The loss or downside [to a joke bombing] is much worse than any benefit of it being funny," he notes. "When in doubt, take it out."

Being funny at work isn't the same as performing a standup act. For starters, you shouldn't try to dominate all the conversation with your quips, cautions Jennifer Dziura, a New York-based education expert and career writer at GetBullish.com. However, she notes that the skills she's picked up in comedy such as knowing who to look at, controlling a room, and being a dynamic speaker have served her well in high pressure speaking situations such as interviews. 

Related: The Esquire Guy's Guide to Swearing in the Office

2. There's a place for humor.
And that place may be during a demo or presentation. People with comedy experience paired with another area of expertise are in demand at corporate training events or with technical presentations, say Dziura and Nainan.

"If you do the same training over and over, you can use the same jokes," Dziura says. Standup comedians typically have a few jokes they use regularly for certain situations, like when the checks come at the end of a show and nobody's paying attention to the performer, or when they get heckled. 

3. Don't force the funny.
Bob Kulhan, a New York-based professional comedic improviser, teaches improv to business people at Duke University, Columbia Business School and companies around the world. He believes humor and business can mix, when the comedy comes from a spontaneous response to the moment.

"Humor in the workplace is not about forcing the funny. It's about letting the funny happen and then taking advantage of it when it does," he explains. "In doing so, a level of honesty and vulnerability comes with the spontaneity… and those traits should certainly be welcome in business," Kulhan says.
 

Lindsay LaVine is a Chicago-based freelance writer who has worked for NBC and CNN.

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