Why don’t men laugh when women use humour in the boardroom? Some have said that women aren’t funny but the truth appears to be that men just don’t get the joke.
“If you go into any workplace, the greatest source of laughter will be where the women are,” says Margaret Byrne, who studies behaviour in meetings.
So, women find each other a scream, but yet their attempts to compete for gags with men often go down like a lead balloon. Why?
Byrne says it is because women’s humour is different to men’s. Men indulge in a more aggressive and competitive style of banter, often putting each other down for laughs and crossing polite boundaries for shock value. With women, the humour tends to be self-deprecating, with everybody pitching in as an ensemble, and it is generally supportive.
“It is kind of like a jazz jam session, with people riffing off each other,” she says.
“When men encounter women’s humour, they get confused. They keep looking for the punchline, but there isn’t one.”
When joking about, women and men may as well be speaking different languages.
Or, to quote Basil Fawlty fondly reminiscing to wife Sybil in Fawlty Towers: “Do you remember when we were first ‘manacled’ together? We used to laugh quite a lot.”
Sybil: “Yes, but not at the same time, Basil.”
One of the most contentious articles by the late Christopher Hitchens was a piece the journalist wrote for Vanity Fair five years ago (“Why Women Aren’t Funny”), where he argued that there was an evolutionary advantage for men to get laughs – to attract the attention of women.
Women, however, were already attractive to men and, so, merely had to be good audiences. He made few friends with this poisonous line: “There are more terrible female comedians than there are terrible male comedians, but there are some impressive ladies out there.
“Most of them, though, when you come to review the situation, are hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combination of the three.”
Byrne argues that stand-up comedy is about one person, a story, a joke and a punchline. Women’s humour just isn’t like that.
The Guardian reignited the argument last month, publishing the results of research as: “Study Says Women Can’t Get A Laugh In The Boardroom, But Men Are Hilarious.”
According to the linguistics expert quoted in the article, Judith Baxter, 90 per cent of male humour in business meetings get laughs, while 80 per cent of women’s attempts is received in awkward silence.
This is what comedians call “dying on stage”.
Byrne, principal consultant at UGM Consulting in North Sydney, says her own extensive research supports Baxter’s conclusions. The problem is, she says, that when women adopt a male style of humour, it often flops.
They may get away with a teasing comment about the failure of a man’s favourite football team, but if they push the male comic style too far and become too aggressive, it can backfire.
“It can be seen as inappropriate and unfeminine,” she says.
And women and men’s humour don’t co-exist very well: “The two different styles of humour do clash when women and men come together.”
Byrne raised $1 million in funding to conduct Australian research into the ways men and women communicate in meetings and spent years putting her study together. She flew out a professional from the BBC in London to film meetings in 26 organisations to get a “fly on the wall” perspective of what goes on at the C-suite levels of organisations.
What she discovered was that women behave very differently when there are no men around.
“If you look at women-only meetings you get to see what women’s humour looks like. When women work together, there’s a tremendous amount of laughter, overlapping talk and high energy.
“There’s some women back-channelling [the nodding and supportive noises listeners make]. Women do that a lot, they are really supportive of each others’ talk, they don’t listen silently.
“Those who are not speaking, or are not back channelling, are usually laughing.
“There’s not usually a joke or a punchline, it is not based on rubbishing someone, or putting a slightly aggressive spotlight on them. The way women’s humour works is as an affiliative device. They are laughing about life, not making fun of each other.
“They are talking about the difficulties they face and recast them in a humorous way.”
Where men may use humour and joking as small talk before getting down to business, women [in women-only meetings] use humour as a thread through the meeting.
“Their typical humour is supportive of the task and it runs through the task like an undercurrent,” she says.
Australian men have their own, unique, style of humour which is more rugged than in most other cultures – and it often doesn’t travel well.
Byrne says the Aussie-bloke humour evolved through the male dominated days of settlement, when there were few women and families were more likely to settle in the gentler environments of New Zealand or Canada.
In men-only meetings, Australians settle down with jocularity but the humour has an aggressive “face-threatening” edge.
“Someone will be singled out for some teasing. Even when it is good humoured, there are insults. These are types of humour I haven’t seen elsewhere,” says Byrne, who originated in Britain. “I don’t know of any cultures where there is that sense of mateship and that aggressive edge, where they tease and rubbish someone and [think that] it’s funny.
“It happens on the margins [of the meetings] and then the men settle down to the agenda.”
Women don’t enjoy that style of humour, says Byrne: “In my research I did not film any meetings where women insulted each other.”
Neither, often, do men from other cultures. Byrne tells of a senior person in an international engineering project who ribbed an Indonesian-born colleague who had popped into his office to borrow a chair for a meeting.
“Oh! Stealing my chair are you?” joked the executive. “Next you’ll be back for my desk.”
The borrower was devastated. “He thought he had been accused of theft,” Byrne says. “I am always advising Australian males to tone it down.”
While milder-mannered men often enjoy the more supportive tone of meetings run by women and people from other cultures, women still have to survive the cut and thrust of male-dominated meetings.
Byrne suggests those who are intimidated by the Aussie bloke humour will need to grow a tougher skin. But they also need to speak up if the humour becomes offensive, she says.
Just 18 months ago, Byrne was the only woman in a C-suite level meeting that was kept waiting because a crucial participant had not arrived. When he tuned up, 15 minutes late, the man (a lawyer in his mid-30s) apologised and said: “I guess that gave you all the time to talk about just how big my dick is.”
Quick as a whip, Byrne replied: “Yes, but you are 15 minutes late and we gave up on that 14 ½ minutes ago because there really wasn’t enough to talk about.”
Everyone laughed, but later, she pulled the man aside and explained that his comment was offensive and was actually unlawful.
At first he tried to justify himself and then backed down and apologised. “He could see the use-by date on that type of humour has gone.”
Fiona Smith is the Work Space editor for The Australian Financial Review.