June 11, 2015 by

This article originally published in Summer 2015 edition of B2B.

Consider the following:

Bob, Carl, and Doug are refilling their coffee cups in the kitchen at their office. Bob says that a friend of his just forwarded an email with really funny jokes. His favorite is, “A sandwich walked into a bar. The bartender says, “We don’t serve food here.”

Carl and Doug laugh.

“And how ‘bout this,” Bob says, “A woman gets on the trolley with her baby. The trolley driver says: “Ugh, that’s the ugliest baby I’ve ever seen!’’ The woman walks to the rear of the trolley and sits down, fuming. She says to a man next to her, ‘‘The driver just insulted me!’’ The man says, ‘‘You go up there and tell him off. Go on, I’ll hold your monkey for you.’’

“Mmm,” says Carl.

Doug laughs.

“Was that your wife and new baby on the trolley?” Doug teases Carl.

Everyone stands uncomfortably silent.

Bob says, “Did you see the picture of Wally and his team in the paper?” [Wally’s firm is a competitor.] “Looked like Wally should have had a trim and a shave before the picture. I think I saw long, black monkey hair coming out of his shirt sleeves.”

Bob, Carl, and Doug walk out of the kitchen together, smiling.

What do you think of the guys’ humor? Is it funny? Depends on whether it hits the mark and makes you laugh. Personally, I laughed at the sandwich joke. I like puns. And I laughed at the second joke about the mom and child on the trolley. But Doug’s teasing about Carl’s wife and baby was a little painful—and Bob’s final joke was cutting (Wally wouldn’t have liked it at all)—but it brought the guys together. What’s that about?

Bob used what is called outgroup humor. It’s demeaning, negative humor directed outside a group that has the positive affect of bringing a group together. The May 2014 edition of International Journal of Humor Research (no joke) included an article called “Assessing Humor at Work,” that talks about this.

I’ll bet we’ve all experienced outgroup humor. I’ve been in workplaces where bosses use it. And you know what? I’ll laugh at almost anything, but for some reason I’ve never appreciated outgroup humor.

Outgroup humor has the mark of being unethical. While it does succeed in creating a bond, it builds an “us” vs. “them” mentality based on divisiveness and derision.

The journal article also helps us understand why we appreciate (or don’t) Bob’s other jokes. The authors of the article distinguish between positive and negative, self-oriented and other-oriented humor.

Intuitively, any positive humor, whether about oneself or another, is usually appropriate and ethical. Thus the sandwich joke is funny. We start getting into trouble when we use negative humor, especially regarding others. Thus the “ouch” when Doug teases Carl about his wife and kid. This kind of humor, when used on someone in our group, can feel like a betrayal and not end up being funny at all.

Generally speaking, humor is a good thing. It has value because it can help us get along with each other.

The questions about the ethics of humor concern the what, when, how, and with whom. It’s important to think about these and use humor right because I want to hear a good joke or two at work, don’t you? Like, “What do you call a nun lost in the woods?” A roamin’ Catholic.