By Tim Huff
President & CEO, TLG
I was in a conversation not too long ago where a joke was made by a Generation Z person who thought it was the funniest joke ever, but a Boomer listening barely chuckled. It got me thinking about how humor, often considered a universal language, can enhance or erode a group’s culture based on the differences in generations in said group.
In the modern workplace, humor acts not just as a source of laughter but a powerful tool for connection, creativity, and resilience. It can serve as a social lubricant, easing tensions and smoothing interactions among team members, and can quickly turn a group of individuals into a cohesive team by creating a shared experience and language. Humor can also improve communication. A well-timed joke or humorous comment can make communication more engaging and memorable. Humor can break down barriers, making people more approachable and open to dialogue.
While humor serves as a universal language, it also comes with its own dialects and nuances, requiring a careful balancing act to ensure inclusivity and respect. It’s crucial to recognize that what is humorous to one generation might not be to another. Being mindful of different sensitivities and avoiding potentially offensive humor is key. The context in which humor is used can greatly impact its effectiveness. It’s important to gauge the appropriateness of humor in various professional scenarios. While humor can enhance the workplace, it’s important to strike a balance. Humor should complement professionalism, not undermine it.
Understanding Generational Humor
From Boomers’ love for classic sitcoms to Generation Z’s penchant for internet memes, humor styles vary significantly across generations. Let’s look at how humor differs between generations.
- Baby Boomers: Known for their appreciation of traditional and observational humor, boomers often enjoy wit and a good story. They grew up in an era of classic television comedies and stand-up shows, making them more inclined towards humor that’s structured and narrative-driven.
- Example: “I told my wife she should embrace her mistakes. She gave me a hug.”
- Generation X: Sarcasm and satire define the humor of Gen Xers. Influenced by a mix of pop culture, political events, and the advent of cable TV, their humor tends to be more cynical and direct.
- Example: “Why did the GenXer refuse to join Facebook? Because he’d already mastered the art of ignoring people without technology.”
- Millennials: Millennials are all about irony and relatability. They thrive on quick, witty jokes, often shared through social media platforms. Their humor is fast-paced, reflecting the rapidly changing world they grew up in.
- Example: “I finally figured out my sleep number! It’s 10… as in 10 more minutes of snooze every morning!”
- Generation Z: The youngest in the workforce, Gen Z’s humor is often absurd and deeply rooted in internet culture (Partlow and Talarczyk, 2021). They are the trendsetters of memes, short videos, and viral TikTok content.
- Example: “I told my computer I needed a break, and now it won’t stop sending me Kit-Kat ads!”
Implementing Humor Wisely
Integrating humor into the fabric of workplace culture is an art that demands thoughtfulness, adaptability, and an understanding of the diverse comedic tastes spanning multiple generations. Here are a few tips.
- Leaders Setting the Tone: Leaders play a crucial role in setting the tone for humor in the workplace. By using humor in a respectful and inclusive way, they can signal to employees that it’s okay to laugh and enjoy their work.
- Know Your Audience: Understand the diverse humor preferences across generations. What might be funny to one group could be off-putting to another.
- Use Inclusive Humor: Avoid jokes that single out a particular group or individual. Instead, use humor that everyone can enjoy and relate to, like how the copier always seems to jam right before an important meeting.
- Avoid Sensitive Topics: Although it might seem obvious, it’s important to emphasize: Steer clear of humor involving politics, religion, race, gender, or personal issues, as these can be easily divisive.
- Monitor and Adjust: Keep watch of how humor lands with team members and do more of the jokes that get the loud belly laughs vs the quiet, awkward chuckles.
Embracing the diverse humor styles across generations can transform the workplace into a more dynamic, connected, and enjoyable space. By understanding and leveraging the unique comedic expressions of each generation, companies can foster a culture that not only values diversity but also celebrates it through laughter.
Call to Action: Share a Laugh Today!
Greengross, Gil (2013). “Humor and Aging – A Mini-Review.” Gerontology, 59(5), 448-453. Humor and Aging – A Mini-Review | Gerontology | Karger Publishers
Partlow, C., and Talarczyk, P. (2021). “Absurdism and the Generation Z Humor: The Effects of Absurdist Content on Perceived Humor Levels in Generation Z Students.” Journal of Student Research 10(4). (PDF) Absurdism and Generation Z Humor: the Effects of Absurdist Content on Perceived Humor Levels in Generation Z Students (researchgate.net)