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STOP US IF you’ve heard this one, but the list of benefits from fostering an environment of levity in the workplace is staggering.

It boosts sales and productivity, makes advertising memorable and causes leaders to appear more competent and likeable. It transforms training and chores into something enjoyable, increases employee retention and attracts eager new hires. It flattens hierarchies, enhances collaboration, heightens bonding and encourages people to take positive risks. It lowers stress, builds resilience, reduces hostility, deflects criticism, improves morale, creates engagement, and helps management communicate difficult messages. It essentially costs nothing (indeed, a 2011 study by researchers at Pennsylvania State University found that a good laugh activates the same regions of the brain that light up over a fat bonus check). Perhaps best of all, it just makes coming into the store or office more enjoyable for everyone.

So what’s the punch line? The rather depressing one that many bosses and workers, especially those in more “professional” settings, think humor is a bad idea … at least in their particular circumstances at their particular place of work. And that mindset is growing.

In both the workplace and society, we are increasingly shying away from levity: According to some studies, we spend about a third as much time laughing as people did in the 1930s. Another study found 90 percent of corporate emails are completely devoid of humor, not even a chirpy sign-off.

What could explain this? There are three main reasons, all of which you’re probably quite familiar with: Humor is viewed as inappropriate for the serious discourse of business or healthcare, it’s hard to do well (it feels like a divinely bestowed gift — you were either the funny kid in school or you weren’t), and it’s dangerous. Jokes are about a shared view of the world, an understanding of the same cultural and linguistic touchpoints and, crucially, a willingness to violate the same norms and laugh at the same things. When they bomb, it’s ostracizing. Worse, if the quip or story is viewed as offensive, it can damage the teller’s professional standing by making them appear lacking in both competence and intelligence.

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“The violating nature of humor is what makes it risky,” says Maurice Schweitzer, a professor of business at the University of Philadelphia’s Wharton School and the author of several studies on workplace humor. “Jokes that go too far over the line of appropriateness cause an ‘eeeek’ reaction. Rather than thinking that the joke teller is intelligent and competent (as happens when someone lands a good one), observers think, ‘What an idiot!’ or ‘I can’t believe he just said that.’”

In short, humor is one more wonder drug that can kill you. It’s not unwise to be wary of its power.

The argument for avoiding humor because it somehow betrays your professionalism is widespread. But in contrast to the very real risk in telling jokes, it is built mostly on falsehoods. “The research is clear: humor can be one of the most powerful tools we have for accomplishing serious things,” says behavioral scientist Jennifer Aaker, co-author of Humor, Seriously: Why Humor Is A Secret Weapon In Business And Life. “Gravity and levity aren’t at odds.”

Indeed, there’s a good argument that the higher the stakes, the more we need humor. (See Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s response to Washington’s offer to evacuate him: “I need ammo, not a ride.” Given the stakes don’t get much higher than facing an invading Russian army.) Dr. Adam Ramsey of Socialite Vision in Palm Beach Gardens, FL, puts it into context this way: “Sometimes it’s better to laugh than to cry. Comic relief separates you from the issue so you can approach it rationally like you would if it wasn’t happening to you.”

But even in these slightly more routine situations — a diamond presentation or a custom sale — a little humor can do wonders, easing a client’s anxiety or lowering their defenses.

“People can be very nervous when searching for engagement and wedding rings. Levity helps when used in the right place,” says Holly McHone, co-owner of Holly McHone Jewelers in Astoria, OR. “I always make sure I make eye contact and have a big warm smile when I am throwing out a little humor to be sure they understand that it is just that. It truly works!” That’s not just the confidence of an experienced jewelry retailer; it’s a truth across industries and professions.

Aaker and her co-author Naomi Bagdonas quote Eric Schmidt, the executive chair of Google, as saying, “I’ve learned (often the hard way) that the best way to be taken seriously is to not take yourself too seriously.”
In your own business, think of the first-time engagement ring buyer or custom design purchaser. They’re likely feeling out of their depth and intimidated. A cheerless, all-business salesperson is the last thing their overwhelmed mind wants to be dealing with at that moment.

On the other hand, when a customer is disarmed by humor, they’re more likely to listen and more likely to be in the mood to buy. Done right, humor has the power to build bridges instantly, lull the customer into surrendering useful personal information and overcome objections. “There is a segment of the population that is still intimidated to walk into a jewelry store,” says Melissa Quick, co-owner of Steve Quick Jeweler in Chicago. “It is our job, as professional salespeople, to connect with people and build relationships. We like to do that with authenticity, and that often involves humor. The best days at the store involve a lot of laughter.”

“Humor makes you likable, and people want to buy from people they like because they trust them and have more confidence in them,” says sales trainer Jeffrey Gitomer. “The end of laughter is followed by the height of listening.”

Humor also builds bridges and commonality. As Stew Brandt, owner of H. Brandt Jewelers in Natick, MA, says, “Humor may be the last vestige of moderate common ground.”
But I’m not that sort of funny, you say. Few of us are. Mercifully, it’s not that hard to get better.

Humor is a skill, which means it can be learned. And besides, you don’t need to be professional comedian level funny, you just need to be funnier than the dour jeweler down the road.

“Just as you don’t need to be Phil Mickelson to do well at the company golf outing, you don’t need to be Amy Schumer, Ali Wong, or John Mulaney to use humor well in the workplace,” write Brad Bitterly and Alison Wood Brooks in Sarcasm, Self-Deprecation, And Inside Jokes: A User’s Guide To Humor At Work.

20 Simple Tips from Jewelry, Comedy and Academia Experts for Bringing the Funny

Studies even show that something as simple as adding a lighthearted line at the end of a sales pitch — like “My final offer is X and I’ll throw in my pet frog” — can increase customers’ willingness to pay nearly 20 percent more.

“Really let it sink in how bad that joke is. The bar is so low,” says Bagdonas.

Denise Oros, owner of Linnea Jewelers in La Grange, IL, has a few jewelry-related suggestions that are funnier and equally simple (assuming you feel the client will take it well):

Customer: “Do you change watch batteries?”
Jeweler: “Oh yes! We do watch CPR every day.”

Customer: Can you size my finger?
Jeweler: Oh, thank goodness you didn’t say can you pull my finger; I thought this was going to be a ‘dad joke’ contest!

Customer: Do you do custom wedding bands?
Jeweler: Sure, we do yellow gold, white gold, platinum, any design you’d like. Would this be a nose or a finger ring?

Dr. Robert Provine, a neuroscientist at the University of Maryland, and probably the world’s leading laughter scientist, has spent most of his professional life collecting examples of the most hilarity-inducing lines in conversations. Brace yourself. They are: “I know.” “I’ll see you guys later.” “I see your point.” “It was nice meeting you.”

Such lines point to a truth about everyday humor — it’s often little more than a mindset or attitude.

“The funny thing about humor is that we don’t need to tell a joke to get a laugh. It can be enough simply not to take yourself too seriously,” notes business communication expert Carmine Gallo in The Story Teller’s Secret.

For Mark Twain, arguably America’s greatest wit, humor wasn’t some optional extra. It was the key to a good life. “Humor is the great thing,” he wrote. “The saving thing. The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.”

In the following pages, we provide tips from your fellow jewelry retailers, comedians, academics and our own reading that will hopefully allow you to up your humor game, and your business operations as well.

Look for True,
Not Funny

If you want to have more humor in your life, don’t look for what’s funny, just look for what’s true, says Naomi Bagdonas, a lecturer at Stanford Graduate School of Business and coauthor of Humor, Seriously. “Become an observer of your life. Look for little oddities or incongruities. It’s not about being funny per se but using humor in small intentional ways.” Jerry Seinfeld, arguably the most successful American comedian of the last few decades, has made a sparkling career from this sort of observational humor: What’s the point of straws? Or one-speed bikes? Why do your kids have names like stars? His genius is in seeing the funny in the thing in front of your nose.

Bagdonas agrees: “Just look around your life and notice these simple true things.” Such an approach also leverages the psychological principle of priming, which states our brains are wired to see what we’ve been set up to expect. Start looking for the humorous, and you’ll find it everywhere.

20 Simple Tips from Jewelry, Comedy and Academia Experts for Bringing the Funny

Keep It
Short

Comedy is in the details, but you don’t want to overdo it, says San Francisco comic Reggie Steele: “Just enough to set the scene.” William Shakespeare may have written “Brevity is the soul of wit,” but funny guys have known you need to get to the funny fast forever.” As Nihill says, “Writing comedy isn’t really about writing, it’s more about editing.”

Start
Small

As you embark on your journey to find and share the funny, take tiny steps — your brain works better and you make better choices when you’re in your comfort zone. You’re also likely to approach customers more positively when it’s in a situation where you’ve had success before, writes Marcus Buckingham in The One Thing You Should Know.

Leverage
Existing Rituals

Not all humor needs to be of the high-stakes interpersonal type. It can be inserted in the small existing rituals of a business. Bagdonas explains: “Oftentimes a manager can think, oh gosh, well, I have to do something totally big and bold to have some levity here. And actually, sometimes the more effective way is to say, what are the rituals you already have? Are there team communication channels? Are there all hands or daily standup meetings? And could you add a little bit of humor into those?” This can include anything from using light-hearted sign-offs in emails to getting staff to play “two truths and a lie” at monthly meetings. The Wall Street Journal recently reported about the “corporate jargon days” that employees at consultancy Silver Lining Ltd. held on a monthly basis when they tried to use as much vague, bureaucratic language as possible. The goal: to goad the group to break the buzzword habit.

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Context
Matters

Any rules of thumb for using humor must include a caveat: Context matters. Conversational dynamics can vary profoundly from person to person, group to group and situation to situation. These factors are tricky to navigate and make it difficult to know whether your humor attempt is being helpful or a distraction. (And when you’re the boss, staff will often laugh politely even if something isn’t funny or is in poor taste, creating an unreliable feedback loop.) A joke can work even in a somber situation if it relieves tension. A boss who jokes after a round of layoffs that he’s going to have to get a smaller yacht is likely to come across as insensitive and tone deaf, says Andrew Tarvin, a New York City workplace coach and author of Humor That Works. “Before you try to say something humorous try to determine the type of person you’re addressing — the wrong humor will sink you as fast as the right humor will boost your chances of a sale,” says Tarvin.

But every once in a while, a risky line pays off. Mary Jo Chanski of Hannoush Jewelers in Rutland, VT, tells this story: “I once had a couple come in and the husband was being terrible to his wife. Cutting her down, making wisecracks. She was mortified. I tried to lighten the mood a bit, but he kept coming for her, saying, “I got you an engagement ring; what else do you need?!” I wanted to look at her and say “Run, girl!”, although I refrained.

“He then says, ‘What’s the cheapest thing you got in here?’ Suddenly I couldn’t take it any longer. The words bubbled up and I could not stop them. ‘Well sir, it appears to be YOU.’

There was a pregnant pause. She and l met eyes, both twinkling, brimming with tears of laughter. He burst out laughing. Laughing! I had made a friend and a customer for life. He spent $1,500 on her that day.”

Keep A
Journal

Keep “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Work” file or journal to write down humorous things or events so you can remember them. It’s an assignment all Aaker and Bagdonas students are given at Stanford. “All that you do is you go through your day, and you jot down any moment when you laughed, or any moment when you had shared laughter,” Aaker says. Typically, their students report experiencing much more joy and laughter in their lives by the seventh day of this practice, she says.

20 Simple Tips from Jewelry, Comedy and Academia Experts for Bringing the Funny

Make Fun of
People Correctly

In other words, make fun of what people do, not who they are. If you’re on the fence about whether to say a joke, don’t use CK Louis as your guide, says Bagdonas. “Don’t ask yourself, will this make me sound funny? Instead ask, how will this make other people feel? The goal isn’t to get a laugh, it’s to connect, to make people feel lighter and more at ease.” Most people know the taboos: Divisive racist, ethnic or sexist jokes are out. Not only do you risk losing the sale, but you could damage the reputation of your business (and if it’s a sexist joke, find yourself on the wrong end of a lawsuit). But you need to go further than simply watching out for someone’s background or identity. “Don’t punch down. So that means never making fun of someone of lower status,” says Aaker. Finally, check your distance — how close are you to the person you are making fun of? “I can make fun of my mother, but not your mother,” says Aaker.

Bounce
Back

The first rule when a joke bombs is don’t repeat the joke, thinking people must not have heard it. They most likely did. And don’t explain it. Instead, skilled humorists quickly turn the joke on themselves, says Michael Kerr, a workplace trainer and author of The Humor Advantage, adding that you should make sure to deliver it in a warm, non-sarcastic tone. For example: “It takes a special human being to do what I just did,” or “This is great. Today was going to well anyway,” or “Thanks, I’ll be here all day.”

As for those times when you cross the line and say something inappropriate, “that’s a very different scenario,” says Bagdonas. “The most important thing is genuinely acknowledge it and get curious about your blind spot. Where was the empathy-fail that led you to this humor fail? So that you can learn from it and not make the same mistake in the future.”

Be
Inclusive

Inside jokes can signal closeness or camaraderie, making people feel pleased to be in the loop. But they can also draw fault lines in an organization, making some people feel awkward and excluded. The research on this kind of humor is clear: When group cohesion is important, tell jokes that everyone can understand.

Tell
Stories

The safest humor involves personal stories because they are guaranteed to be original. And they can be practiced and perfected in your own highly personalized style. Keep in mind there’s nothing funny about a confident person who’s doing well. The best stories involve those when life threw you a banana peel. Your new trainee tossing a 1-carat diamond into the dumpster is not funny today … but it will be when you get to Vegas and talk shop with other store owners. As the late humorist Jeanne Robertson wrote in Don’t Let The Funny Stuff Get Away, humor is not about one-liners or being able to tell jokes, it’s about accepting things about yourself that can’t be changed and finding the humor in the situations around you.

20 Simple Tips from Jewelry, Comedy and Academia Experts for Bringing the Funny

Know Your
Humor Style

Bagdonas and Aaker contend that everyone has one of four humor styles:

  1. Stand-Up: Bold, irreverent, and unafraid to ruffle a few feathers (Example: Wanda Sykes).
  2. Sweetheart: Earnest, understated, and use humor that lightens the mood (Example: James Corden).
  3. Sniper: Edgy, sarcastic, nuanced — masters of the dig (Example: Michelle Wolf).
  4. Magnet: Expressive, charismatic, and easy to make laugh (Example: Jimmy Fallon). To determine your category, you can take their test at quiz.humorseriously.com.

“The more you understand everyone’s styles, the easier it is to read the room and know when to drop that perfectly timed frog joke,” says Aaker. You’ll also be better able to mitigate risks. For example, sweethearts and magnets need to watch out for excessive self-deprecation that can undermine their reputations, while standups and snipers have to make sure they don’t offend or alienate.

It’s OK to
Chicken Out

If you don’t think you can land jokes at work, or you’re too nervous to try, that’s OK. Not everyone is meant to be funny, just as not every attempt at humor will be successful. (Even professional comedians have “bits” that bomb.)
But you can still incorporate a little levity into your work life by doing something simple: appreciating other people’s humor, say Bitterly and Wood Brooks. “Be quick to laugh and smile. Delight in the absurdity of life and in the jokes you hear. A life devoid of humor is not only less joyful — it’s also less productive and less creative, for you and for those around you.” Dr. Robert M. Easton Jr. in Oakland Park, FL, sums this up perfectly: “I rarely tell a joke but I welcome patients telling them to me.”

Is Sarcasm Your
Second Language?

sarcasm has a reputation for being a low, mostly negative form of humor favored by teenagers when engaging with their parents or humiliating a peer. But studies show that when used appropriately, it can boost creativity and expand the way we think about things; because it involves saying one thing and meaning another, interpreting it necessitates a higher level of abstract thinking. But it requires a cautious approach and works best when trust and playfulness have been established between parties.

Rehearsed
Spontaneity

the bits comics do on stage have the feel of something raw and spontaneous. But good comics leave nothing to chance: Every word, sentence and gesture has been rehearsed and tested to find where the best laugh lines are. Yes, there are naturally funny people, but to get better requires practice. Find a space at home or work and tell your stories while recording them. “If it makes you laugh even a little on playback, then you have something good to work with,” says Nihill. True, you’ll probably hate the sound of your voice, but you’ll get used to it. The family pet dog can make a good first audience. But soon you’ll want to run your “bits” by co-workers, trusted friends or old customers to see if they’re actually funny or instead prone to unintended interpretation. “If most of them laugh, keep it for your repertoire; if the majority groan, drop it. You’ve saved yourself some future pain.”

20 Simple Tips from Jewelry, Comedy and Academia Experts for Bringing the Funny

The Rule
of Threes

Three is the smallest number of elements required to create a pattern. Once you start looking for it, you’ll see it everywhere (“Life, Liberty and The Pursuit Of Happiness,” “Blood, Sweat and Tears,” “Sex, Drugs and Rock ‘n’ Roll”). It works in humor when the pattern ends with something unexpected. “It seems that audiences are trained to laugh at the third item as well,” says David Nihill, the author of Do You Talk Funny. “It’s strange but true.” Think of every “Three men walk into a bar…” joke you’ve ever heard.

Practice
with Bottles

Comedian Matt Morales recommends practicing your presentation or pitch with a bottle in each hand to get accustomed to speaking with your hands out in front of you. It looks natural, but initially will make you feel like Jon the Robot.

Try
Improv

Speaking and presentation coach Darren LaCroix says there are three keys to improving humor delivery — stage time, stage time, and stage time. Humor workshops for businesspeople, and especially improv clubs, have exploded in recent years. True, improv is little more than looking silly and exposed in front of strangers, but the benefits are claimed to go way beyond getting more comfortable with public speaking. (One MIT study found a group of improv comedians generated 20 percent more ideas than professional product designers did — apparently practicing improv develops your ability to create.) On top of a tougher skin, improv teaches specific techniques to think faster and funnier on your feet, the best known of which is the “and, yes” extension to allow you to further riff on an idea. It even makes for a great team building exercise.

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Humor for
Negative Feedback

It can be tempting to fall back on a joke to lighten the mood or stop someone from getting overly defensive — such as teasing someone about running up a $75 tab on the hotel minibar at a trade show. However, couching criticism in the form of a joke can lessen its impact. A Harvard Business School study found that although humorous complaints were better received than serious ones, they were also seen as more benign, and people felt less compelled to take action to rectify the problem. “If a manager jokes about a subordinate’s slipping performance, the employee may think either that his performance hasn’t been slipping or that the situation isn’t a big deal. If it were, why would she be joking about it?” Brad Bitterly and Alison Wood Brooks write in the article.

Use Humor
That Has a Point

Our brains don’t like or recall boring things, which is why funny ads are remembered. However, there are two things to keep in mind when going for a humorous approach in your advertising: 1) studies show your claims may not be taken as seriously; and 2) the humor needs to reinforce the principal point of your ad. “Here’s the litmus test,” says Wizard Of Ads author Roy H. Williams: “If remembering the humor forces you to recall the message of the ad, the humor is motivated. Good job. But if recalling the humor doesn’t put you in memory of the ad’s main point, the humor is unmotivated and will make your ad less effective. Sure, people will like the ad. They just won’t buy what you’re selling.”

Learn to
Write Funnier

Pickles, pop tarts, underpants — some words are funnier than others. In “The Sunshine Boys”, Neil Simon quips words with a K are funny: Alka Seltzer is funny, chicken is funny. Simpsons creator Matt Groening proclaimed the word “underpants” to be at least 15 percent funnier than “underwear”. According to David Nihill, the author of “Do You Talk Funny”, “You want to pepper your story with emotive words like “weird”, “amazing”, “scary”, “stupid”, “crazy” or “nuts.” On the other hand, watch out for words and phrases that can usually be cut like, “in my opinion”, “that”, “just”,“actually”, “truly” and “very”.

Chris Burslem is Group Managing Editor at SmartWork Media.

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