Impact of Humour on Formal Communication

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Humor In Formal Communication

This paper focuses on humor and its impacts in formal communications and conversations. In this report, 3 main ideas are elucidated. The first main idea consists of 2 sections. First section is about the meanings and interpretations of humor and formal communication. It explains the term humor in aspect of psychology. There are 4 types of humors: self-enhancing humor, aggressive humor, affiliative humor and self-defeating humor. Formal communication is defined conceptually by examples in real life and Surbhi (2015) compares the formal and informal communication. The challenging 5 W questions (Why, Who, What, Where and When) have been estimated and been answered in the second section. Next idea explains humor with examples of real lives in education, workplace and politics, and how important and powerful tool can it be in leaderships and communications. In education, sense of humor is being used to increase the attentions and helping to enhance the long-term memory control. Openness and comfort is important in workplace; staff can overcome difficult and stressful situations by using sense of humor. Politicians often use humor as a tool to get attention and deliver their message with power. Politicians and leaders can influence people’s opinions with effective use of humor. A good public speaker must know the function of humor in any types of speeches that either persuades, informs or it is a call to action. Humor is indeed a strong tool and behavior in communications. From the perspective of superiority theory, as cited in Meyer (2000), humor results seeing one as superior in compare to one another. At the end, the last idea discusses the methodology of how can humor be used. The paper also points out the advantages and disadvantages of using humor. It is not always beneficial. Humor in formal communications and in daily conversations is a necessity that can be very helpful to human interactions.

Definitions; Humor and Formal Communication

Until today, there is not an exact definition or meaning of sense of humor available to focus on. The closest meaning can be described as a psychological behavior that can bring laugh and put smiles on faces of the groups, members of an organization or an individual. However, it can sometimes be harsh and unacceptable depending on how and where this behavior is being used. According to Michalik and Sznicer (2017), humor is a “social phenomenon” and it occurs mostly in social interactions between people. We can find humor in environments like workplaces, schools, and theaters and even in homes among people and families. The use of sense of humor differ and can be determined depending on the time and situation. For instance, comedians at theatres mostly use the humors that induce laugher. On the hand, the humor that is been used in serious businesses may cause a smile or laugh, but it is used for matter of business and has different definition compare to the one used by comedians. Both may have the same function, however, they have different perspectives.

Humor has different kinds and styles, which each can affect the communication in their own ways. As cited in Reece (2014) and Dobson (2006), there are 4 styles of humor:

  1. Self-enhancing humor (laughing at life)
  2. Affiliative humor (bonding)
  3. Self-defeating humor (hate-me)
  4. Aggressive humor (put-down)

The group or individual who use self-enhancing humor often have a humorous point of view toward life. This style of sense of humor helps the person in stressful events and bad situations to provoke positive emotions and stay calm. In affiliative humor, the user or the person who use humor focuses to connect and attract others with making jokes and telling funny stories (Cruthirds, 2007). It is also used to make people around feel happy and helps them to overcome the problem in an efficient way. Self-enhancing humor can be related to affiliative humor and can be considered as a part of it. The only difference is that in self-enhancing, the person focuses on himself or herself; in affiliative, the user focuses on others and he/she tries to get attention and build relationships. In self-defeating humor the person uses himself or herself as the main joke or target to be more approachable and make people laugh. “People who utilize self-defeating humor ridicule themselves in an attempt to amuse and seek acceptance from others,” according to Martin et al. (2003), as cited in Cruthirds (2007). Aggressive humor aims on others by teasing or using sarcasm. Unlike self-defeating humor, aggressive humor is related to anger and usually does not help building relationships. It is recommended that both styles of self-defeating and aggressive humor should be avoided. All these 4 types of humors affect the communication styles and individuals should be aware that when and where should humor be used.

 Communication occurs when there is an interaction between individuals or organizations; it can be informal or formal. Informal communication is a casual or an unofficial communication between normal people, friends and families, or when the conversation is about something that is not as significant as it must be. Informal communications usually take place outside of businesses. Unlike informal communication, formal communication is professional and controlled; the conversation is more official. It mostly occurs between the employees, managers, or it can be seen in many news channels. It shows the importance of the discussion and conversation. Surbhi (2015) compares the 2 types of communications by their patterns. She explains that “Formal communication is one that passes through predefined channels of communication, Informal communication refers to the form of communication which flows in every direction.” This paper mainly focuses on humor in formal communication, which can be rarely seen because of intensive and serious environments like workplaces (business conferences) or schools (meetings). A formal communication may take place through E-mails, reports, letters, discussions, debates and presentations. Each medium is different and has its own guidelines and rules of communicating. Therefore, the method of using humor may vary in each medium. The general methodology and the impacts of having and using sense of humor are briefly explained in the following sections.

The 5 W questions (Why, Who, What, Where, When)

 Why use of humor should be considered in formal communications? As it was discussed, the people who use humor are more approachable. The person who has sense of humor gets the attention of audiences and can often build trust. While tension barriers exist in formal communication, it is efficient to use humor to break through these pressures. Stress is another factor that can be seen in formal communications and can have a negative impact on the productivity. Humor reduces stress. Likewise, it creates a positive atmosphere, which then encourages interactions among the people. Therefore, humor relatively helps to increase the productivity. Also, in some occasion, leaders and managers preferably send their message with humor when the message is not good news for the receiver. As George Saunders said, “humor is what happens when we’re told the truth quicker and more directly than we’re used to”, cited in Reece (2014).

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 While every one is encouraged to have sense of humor, it is significant to consider what can be used as humor. Sense of humor is not obligatory, but is considered as a positive factor to have. Employees and managers in workplace, teachers in school, leaders and politicians as well as well-aged people may use humor to maintain the positive atmosphere. Greene (2012) argues that comedians should be more careful when using humor and the listeners should not recognize this control. They “should feel as if they are part of the sketch”. Cultures’ variety and language barriers are the main obstacles when using the humor for audiences. For instance, the “Knock Knock” joke is popular in western countries like Canada or USA. But someone who knows the joke cannot use the same joke for Middle Eastern countries like Iraq or Iran. In other words, cultures differ and people with different backgrounds cannot really relate to the humor, and will end up confused. Therefore, instead of being humorous, the person will be considered boring and eventually, he/she may lose the attentions.

 Although some may argue that it is NOT ok to be funny and laugh every time. But with understanding the situation and logically creating a joyful moment through humor, having sense of humor is totally acceptable. The purpose of having sense of humor is to be positive and make others feel joyful. For instance, people at funerals try not to laugh or be funny since the event is not for any kind of amusement. However, a relative or a friend of the person who has passed away can recapture the good and funny memories they had with each other. In this case, sense of humor plays the role, which makes other people interested to listen to the story and puts smile on faces. Humor breaks the barriers for communication between people and families who have lost somebody or in depressing situations, according to Marmo (2010). Furthermore, business meetings are places where using humor is recommended. In stressful times like when a company has faced with a loss in revenue or any kinds of failure, having sense of humor helps reduce anxiety, which is effective for good brainstorming.

Real World Examples: Schools and Workplaces

Humor has the power to make the classroom and educators effective in teaching students. It is known and obvious that students mostly get tired of studies and at the end, they lose their attentions easily due to overload information and long hour’s lectures. The instructor can make an effort to be humorous and entertain the students for better learning and effective environment. Games, comical voices, stories, humorous video clips and funny jokes are some examples that teachers can use to make the classroom more fun. A research done by Dr. Appleby, a PhD professor at Emeritus of Psychology IUPUI, supports the idea that telling amusing jokes, laughing with students and “interesting and light-hearted personal examples” can increase students’ “enjoyment of learning”. He also collected 114 questionnaires asking his students about humor. The following charts explain some of his results:

 Various kinds of stressful situations can be found in workplaces and businesses. Managers, employees and workers are encouraged to use sense of humor; it helps them reduce stresses and anxieties they normally have in those bad moments. Furthermore, trusts and relationships among staff are other important factors that can be affected by humor in a workplace. In early days, the use of humor in companies was meaningless; it was to a point that Ford Company’s one of the employees got fired in 1940 because he was laughing, as cited in Michalik and Sznicer (2017). But nowadays, the organizations encourage its employees and managers to have sense of humor and use it when communicating with each other and customers. Many airline companies encourage their staff to laugh and make jokes as much as possible with customers and their co-workers.

 According to Martin (2007), effects of humor in classrooms can be recognized when there are good relationships between students and teachers, the lecture and environment are not boring and students have “positive attitudes towards learning”. It is important to note that, with using sense of humor teachers in schools and employees in workplaces build trusts and relationships among each other. Humor strengthens the memory of the brain. It makes a person more approachable; and eventually helps all employees and managers work together in a healthy and friendly environment.

Power of Humor In Politics, Leaderships and Formal Communications

 “For centuries politicians, citizens, and elites have marveled at and feared humor’s powerful—and magical—influence on public opinion”, (Caulfield, 2007). Some examples of political humor can be seen through TV shows such as The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and Jimmy Kimmel Live! Show, and through comedians’ stand-up like Trevor Noah and Maz Jobrani. They all use humor for various reasons such as entertaining people who like politics, and being a sign for an animadversion toward politicians. Humor helps politicians to be creative, critical and flexible; it provides them the courage and ability to handle many difficult situations. Galily and Kayam (2014) argues that to have a good rapport with potential voters, the modern politicians must have these desirable traits. These factors and characteristics help politicians to gain their audiences’ trusts, and to influence people’s thoughts and decision-makings. As a result, these leaders can be trusted in hard situations and people find them more responsive and approachable regarding their political positions.

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The political view of humor is when a person tries to achieve something he wants using that humor. For instance, when having political debates and public speaking, Donald Trump, the president of USA, always use humor and make funny jokes. He mainly tends to use an aggressive humor to show his higher statue and confidence. Restuccia and Schreckinger (2018) added, “For his supporters and allies, Trump’s irreverent jokes, which have become a central part of his increasingly frequent rallies across the country, are a feature, not a bug.” Politicians, in general, use humor to attack their opponents and destroy the image they have from people (their supporters). It is also recommended that the responses to these attacks should be in a humorous manner in return, according to Ridanpää (2009), Rolfe (2010), Tsakona (2009), cited in Galily and Kayam (2014). The authors also provided an example of humor; during the election, Barak Obama was elected as junior state senator and he was asked that if he was interested to be president. His response was: “Guys, I am a state senator. I was elected yesterday. I have never set foot in the U.S. Senate. I have never worked in Washington. And the notion that somehow I am going to start running for higher office, it just doesn’t make sense…I am going to be spending the first several months of my career in the U.S. Senate looking for the washroom and trying to figure out how the phones work.”, (Galily and Kayam ,2014).

 Humor is a useful tool in communications and the communicator should realize and understand where and when exactly should be applied, said Richardson (2013). Sense of humor has a unique power, which can be used to communicate easily with others. In formal communications, it is important to deliver the message right and accurate. As it was mentioned, the pressure in formal communication is usually high. Yet, the tension can be reduced with humor; it also helps to gain and hold the listener’s heed. Furthermore, the individual tends to get what he/she demands more likely when the person uses well-placed humor during negotiations. Dziegielewski, Jacinto, Laudadio and Legg-Rodriguez (2003) added, “As Kush notes, humor adds a colorful dimension to our personality . . . and . . . is a desirable characteristic of a healthy personality”.

Methods, advantages and disadvantages

Pescosolido (2008) explains that when people have sense of humor and use it in their groups or as individuals, they gain positive impact, which enables them to be socially active. But how humor can be used efficiently? While some humor may be funny to one, may not be funny to the other. Humor should be a message with psychological motivations, sent to the audience(s). The communicator should ensure that the humor is clear and easy to understand by everyone. Otherwise he/she may lose attentions. Beard (2014) adds some tips about what to do when using humor. For instance, she advises to self-chuckle, which means that everything is ok; make fun (in a good way) of things everyone is worried about. The person who uses humor should be careful to limit the humor because the audience may start thinking and consider him/her as a comedian, unless the subject of the communication is a funny topic. Moreover, Jasheway (2016) pointed out and gave an example about “The Rule Of Three”. It is about pairing 2 same ideas and adding a third idea, which is not completely related to the other 2. For example, “Losing weight is simple: Eat less, exercise more and pay NASA to let you live in an anti-gravity chamber” (Jasheway, 2016).

 There are many benefits of humor that can be considered when having a formal communication or conversation. Positive and warm environment is one of the most significant and noticeable benefits of having sense of humor. Some benefits of humor are as follows:

  • Relieves tension
  • Reduces stress (emotional and physical) and anxieties
  • Facilitates relationships and build trusts
  • Makes you more likeable
  • Keeps and increase attentions
  • Enhances long-term memory retention
  • Makes the listener more receptive and flexible when delivering the message
  • Increases divergent critical thinking skills

Even though there are various and large amount of benefits of having humor, the negative impacts of humor cannot be ignored.


Overall, humor is necessary in our daily lives and it can be used as a powerful tool for building healthy relationships while choosing effective words. Choosing words wisely can help to get attentions and builds trust. To use humor in communication, the topic of the conversation must be considered carefully and the person who uses humor must focus on the idea in his humor that should be related to the topic of the communication or the conversation. It is crucial to keep in mind that not always humor can be used. The timings and situations in certain events will not allow the user to have the sense of humor. Therefore, place and time are two significant factors that must be observed. Humor is an efficient tool for schools and workplaces because it has some positive impacts on productivity of the students and workers. Sense of humor is often compared to a medicine that can keep people away from stressful situations. According to Paul Osincup, some millennials were “asked to describe the characteristic traits of the best leaders in their organizations and the terms like work ethic and sense of humor are mentioned twice as often as any other trait or characteristic.” Osincup also used an example of Abraham Lincoln to support his speech. As a result, leaders and politicians can also use sense of humor. To use humor in communication, some practices must be done before attempting and must consider the benefits and disadvantages that it may have.


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