A View from the Bubble

Musings from outside the mainstream.

Women, humor and the workplace

I’ve heard the complaint before, from a certain type of man, that women have no sense of humor. I usually dismiss these complaints because this type of man is usually an asshole; his behavior boorish and the jokes he defends are racist or laced with sexual innuendo.

However, my judgment in these cases is based on a stereotype of a certain type of man.  And it certainly holds true some of the time.  But, what if our culture has become so dependent on fighting stereotypes with, alas, stereotypes, that the issues feminism was attempting to address have become lost among offense when none was meant? What if umbrage is taken where none is due?  Can we speak up about it?

Humor is complex and nuanced.  It fails as often as it succeeds.  And yet we seek it out constantly.  There is a huge difference between a cruel or demeaning sense of humor and one that attempts to defuse a situation or address an issue by poking fun at it.

But does humor belong in the workplace? Anywhere in our social sphere?

The latest brouhaha surrounding comments made by Sir Tim Hunt would suggest, no.  Certainly not if women are anywhere in the story.  And even when the teller of the joke is actually making himself the bunt of the joke.

I tell you what though, I’m beginning to side with the boors on this one.  Not that men should be able to tell awful jokes, but that some women are so humorless, you just shouldn’t risk it. I mean, in the photo here, can you tell who’s humorless and who’s telling a joke?

It’s ironic because women respond so well to humor; from the common refrain “Live! Laugh! Love!” to the recurring theme prevalent on any dating website; “I’m looking for a man who can make to make me laugh.”  Not that women in the workplace are looking for men to hit on them, rather it’s pretty hard to deny that laughter is the grease to so many of our human interactions.

Men use humor frequently with each other, and it’s not uncommon to fail.  But, we get over it, and we use it again.  It’s sometimes said that the way men show that they like each other is by poking fun at each other.  For example, as I age, and as I’ve had to give up softball, what I miss most isn’t the testosterone infused competition but the barbs thrown at each other for striking out on a bad pitch, or taking a walk. This is clearly lost on some women. #notallwomen

It’s lost even on women who defend Tim Hunt. Take Alessia Errico, for example, in her piece in Nature defending Tim Hunt, as not being sexist but poor at telling jokes.

Errico says Hunt’s now famous comments were “inappropriate and indefensible,” but also says “the reaction to them, and their impact on his career, has been disproportionate.”  She believes he was joking because she was “once on the receiving end of one of his public jokes — and his attempt at humor then was just as bad.”

Errico said she felt embarrassed, though she also says she was not offended. “I knew he was joking, and it did provide a way of breaking the ice when I met people later.”

But, but… isn’t this a prime example of how we use humor daily — to break down barriers? Humor lubricates social situations and makes first meetings less anxiety provoking, and meetings in general, less dull and more enjoyable.

I have no doubt the joke Hunt told at the Women in Science conference failed for some people. But some people like Eddie Murphy and others like Monty Python. And I think we all used to like Bill Cosby a lot more than we do now.  Regardless, if a joke fails to make you laugh, and many think your umbrage is disproportionate, do you really think you’re improving the lot of women in science or women in workplace by calling us “awful misogynistic supporters” if we speak up against your inability to parse humor, or have an inflated CV?

I, for one, do not want to examine everything we say to the smallest detail, or lose a sense of humor about the world we live in. If humor is a social interaction that men use frequently, must it be stamped out altogether? If women want a workplace that is more family friendly and more nurturing and empathetic, can men say they want a workplace where humor isn’t over analyzed or unfairly portrayed?

Take offense if you wish. But please don’t complain if we’re no fun.  Or if men and women simply point out the errors and inaccuracies in your arguments. It’s not sexist to have a different point of view, a different sense of humor or simply to have a sense of humor.


“The fact that people who are incredibly intelligent and have interesting things to say aren’t given the room to work out their arguments or thoughts because someone will take offense is depressing to me.”
Anna Holmes, founder of Jezebel, on the Longform Podcast.

Edit: And now there’s proof that Connie St Louis’ version of events; “There was a deathly silence. Nobody was laughing,” is incorrect. The recording suggests people got that it was a joke and laughed. Isn’t it ridiculous what it’s come to?

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This entry was posted on July 15, 2015 by in commentary and tagged , , , , , .
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