The Danger of Joking at Work: The Rise and Fall of Workplace Humor

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Smiling not joking

SMILING, BUT NOT JOKING/Photo: Michael Moffa

The Canadian Television Network (CTV) February 4, 2012 headline served as a sad reminder of how solemn the world has become: “Man Says Workplace Quip Made Him a Terror Suspect”. One variant headline for the same story reported the quip as a “joke” (which is part of the connotation of “quip”).  It has to make us wonder what has happened to make workplace humor risky, where it is not altogether taboo—humor that used to add such a playful,  off-setting (rather than off-putting) often racy accent to the sober seriousness of the workplace, and to ask why it was so popular in the first place, seemingly so long ago (two issues analyzed below).

Metaphor as Dangerous Joke

Saad Allami, a Moroccan-born Montreal telecommunications sales manager said something that got him detained by the Quebec Provincial Police (QPP), got his house stormed and searched by a squad of officers, and his family warned he is a terrorist. So, what did he say to get himself into so much trouble?

Strictly speaking, the cause of his woes was a colorful metaphor rather than a conventional punch-line-based stand-up-comic joke: As part of a pep-talk, on January 21, 2011, he sent out a text message to staff urging them to “blow away” the competition at a New York City convention. reports that, “Allami actually sent the text in French, using the verb ‘exploser,’ which means ‘to explode’, but is often used completely innocently, as in the phrase, ‘exploser de joie’, meaning ‘to go wild with joy’, something Allami probably has not done much of recently.”

Unhappy indeed—Allami is suing the QPP, one police officer and the provincial government for $100,000, for unlawful detention, unlawful arrest, loss of income and damage to his reputation. Apparently, the incident has blocked crucial provincial professional certification required for his job and has raised concerns about who reported or monitored such an ostensibly innocent text message.

Allami’s case is not unique: On February 6, 2012, in an article with the header “British Pair Arrested in U.S. on Terror Charges Over Twitter Jokes”,  the U.K.’s Daily Mail reported, “Two British tourists were barred from entering America after joking on Twitter that they were going to ‘destroy America’ and ‘dig up Marilyn Monroe’. Leigh Van Bryan, 26, was handcuffed and kept under armed guard in a cell with Mexican drug dealers for 12 hours after landing in Los Angeles with pal Emily Bunting.”

Apparently oblivious to the intended humor and playful metaphors, their interrogators asked them why they wanted to destroy America, unaware or unconvinced that “destroy” meant “to get trashed and party (somewhere)”. Bunting added, “I almost burst out laughing when they asked me if I was going to be Leigh’s lookout while he dug up Marilyn Monroe.” To be fair, a case may be made for an official “better gloom than doom” humorless national security policy—but only up to a point and line drawn by common sense.

Vanishing and Non-Existent Jokes

Playful talk with national security implications and law enforcement reactions aside, what about the classic full-blown (pun intended) set-up-plus-punch-line joke that no one would ever construe as a terrorist threat to blow something up—“a man with a rabbit on his shoulder walks into a bar” rather than “a man with an AK-47 and a bomb walks into a bar” kind? Why have workplace water-cooler and lunchtime true jokes—as personal experience, the testimony of friends and other anecdotal evidence suggest—become as rare as bar-room rabbits?

Correct me if I am wrong, but I’m willing to bet that very few, if any, of you have told or heard a joke at work this past week or past month. (I’d be interested in hearing not only that you have, but also the joke itself, since good ones are scarce these days—even among the ones I’ve dared to write and publish myself, here at

Equally interesting and perhaps even more mysterious is the question as to why social joke-telling would ever have been extremely common in some cultures, such as American workplace and broader culture, yet virtually non-existent in others, e.g., Japanese. In all the years I lived in Japan and despite my numberless requests to be told a Japanese joke, any Japanese joke book that I might try to put together would be as thin as rice paper.

The Japanese

That’s because, as the Japanese repeatedly explained to me, unlike Americans and other Westerners, they have no tradition, custom or folkway that involves telling jokes—except for the formal theatrical performance genres called “rakugo” and “manzai”, which date from the 13th century (rakugo) and 8th century (manzai) and involve a long monologue or dialogue performed on stage and characterized by continuous sit-down (rakugo) or stand-up (manzai) comic narrative and wordplay.

Instead of telling jokes, the average Japanese employs what is called “shippai dan” (“failure talks”)—self-effacing tales of personal failure or embarrassment—as a humble social lubricant, instead of the subtly or obviously more aggressive, self-assertive, other-targeting joke forms familiar in the West, e.g., lawyer jokes, Polish jokes and mother-in-law jokes.

Definitely not social zombies, the Japanese laugh a lot, but usually because of social situational incongruities, sight-gags (e.g., somebody looking for glasses that are on his head), slapstick or an endearingly told shippai dan. But, tell a joke at some target’s expense? Almost never, if ever. This irresistibly invites the question why such a striking difference from our joke-telling custom? (Discussed below.)

The Death of Jokes

When uninhibited, unconstrained and not prohibited by political correctness, sensitivity, corporate sobriety or a hectic workplace pace, joke-telling used to be and can still be observed at work—given effective circumspection or no need for it. Of course, sexist, racist, ageist, homophobic, religionist, midget and other categories of jokes that zero in on soft targets have been pretty much banned in the workplace for quite some time.

These days, if you want to tell a joke that targets some group or individual (other than the quintessentially Japanese self-deprecating shippai dan genre), it better be a joke about beagles, bunnies, computers or companies that make computer software, e.g., Microsoft. That’s because these latter groups either have no power and representation whatsoever or have more than enough to be concerned about your puny jokes. So you can still tell aggressive jokes, but only with very cautiously selected, non-retaliating targets, if you want to stay out of trouble. Unlike combat jet pilots, you cannot go after every “target of opportunity”.

The problem with this modern sanitized and shackled joke telling is that the currently available targets just aren’t as tempting as the old ones were. Hence, there is much less interest in telling jokes that are not at some well-defended group’s expense, at work or anywhere else.

To see that this is true, experiment and ask a workmate, “Have you heard the joke about the French poodle that was outfitted with sun glasses?” Yawn.

The Multi-Cultural Challenge to Jokes

Moreover, as Western cultures, like those of Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand have become truly multi-cultural, linguistic and cultural barriers to grasping and appreciating jokes have become formidable. Try telling a joke about Canadian curling to a recently arrived Somali immigrant, or getting the point of this Somali joke: “There were two Somali robbers in a house just before fajr. Fajr time approached and the Azan came on. One of the Somali guys looks at the other and says, ‘Wareeya, faster… we have to go pray.’ Just as they were collecting the last items, one of them accidentally dropped a Qur’an. The other saw this and got really angry and said, ‘IstfurAllah al-azeem” and shot the other.” (Just be sure you are not detained along with the Somali because somebody overheard the words “Qur’an” and “shot”. This joke quoted from, a cache of jokes for Muslims. Really.)

So, there’s much less interest in telling jokes in Western workplaces, period.

Perhaps the most interesting question of all is why Westerners—definitely including Americans—have had a tradition of joke telling at all, especially given the fact that some other cultures conspicuously have not. The reason is intriguing, yet not hard to understand: Jokes are perfect for the American psyche.

The Psycho-Social Anatomy of American Jokes

The key ingredients of a joke map perfectly into the American psyche. Here’s how.

Americans take great pride in being special, smart, egalitarian, friendly, casual, open, successfully competitive, extroverted, belonging, take-charge, popular, playful, powerful and self-assertive. Telling a joke enables them to accomplish every one of these in one go. That’s because telling a joke allows the American teller to

  • Stand out from his audience, as the special focus of attention and as a wit with something special to say
  • Display the intelligence and wit required to remember and effectively deliver the joke
  • Evidence relaxed, open, egalitarian and casual friendliness
  • Compete for attention and admiration, as an entertaining humorist
  • Create a (temporary, ad hoc) in-group solidarity—by targeting some out-group or individual as the target and butt of the joke
  • Appear extroverted, sociable and gregarious
  • Manifest social leadership, by taking control of and dominating the interaction
  • Be (momentarily) popular with and favored by those in his audience
  • Demonstrate an ability to be playful, to banter and to engage in the give-and-take of friendly teasing (of present or distant targets)
  • Flex social muscle by being self-assertive (in virtue of making himself look good, by suggesting personal superiority to the joke’s target and by delighting his audience)

The key elements of this American joke-performance that do not resonate with the traditionally joke-averse Japanese are

  • Self-assertion (traditionally taboo in a culture that has required personal humility and deference)
  • Display of wit (which, like analytical conversation, has been viewed by the Japanese as a highly suspect and contrived form of showing off)
  • Competition for attention and leadership (traditionally discouraged through Japanese maxims such as “The nail that stands out gets hammered”)
  • Casualness (which historically has been safe in Japan only after relative social rank determined by age, occupation, etc., have been determined)
  • Attempts to appear special (although, like most other people, the Japanese would like to be special—but cannot afford to be obvious about it, given a strong cultural emphasis on modesty, humility and harmony)

Perhaps this is the reason why so few Japanese are detained for comic tweets and text messages. Had Saad Allami been Japanese or learned from them, he would have sent a text message to his workmates that would almost certainly have kept him out of hot water.

Instead of “blow them out of the water”, he might have more softly said, “Please assist their entry into the water….

….especially if they can’t swim.”

Read more in Organizational Culture

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).