Australian Linguistic Society

No joking matter! The functions of humour in the workplace

Janet Holmes, Department of Linguistics and Applied Language Studies, Victoria University of Wellington,


This paper analyses the functions which humour serves in routine interactions within four government departments. While politeness theory accounts for positive functions of humour, it does not explain repressive or confrontational humour. The analysis examines "the dark side of politeness" (Austin 1990) to demonstrate that humour may function, especially in unequal encounters, as a means by which superiors maintain their position, but also as a socially acceptable strategy by which subordinates challenge superiors.


Why do people use humour at work? While amusement is one very basic function of humour, this paper suggests that humour serves a range of further complex functions in workplaces, social contexts where both collegiality and status are important factors in a sociolinguistic analysis.

Database and methodology

In 1996-7, the Language in the Workplace Project team collected 330 everyday workplace interactions in four New Zealand government departments. The sample selected for this analysis comprises 25 interactions which a preliminary description identified as including instances of humour. At least five interactions from each of the four workplaces are included, with examples of single sex and mixed sex interactions, involving both Pakeha (of European origin) and Maori participants. 200 instances of humour were identified, and these provide the basis for the discussion in this paper.


I have developed a definition which focusses on "successful" humour, and which highlights the extent to which humour is interactionally achieved.

Definition of humour:

Instances of humour included in this analysis are utterances which are identified by the analyst as intended to be amusing by the speaker(s) and perceived to be amusing by participants.

In identifying such instances I used a range of contextual, paralinguistic and prosodic clues, including the speaker's tone of voice and the audience's auditory response. (Holmes forthcoming provides further discussion).

Functions of humour in the workplace

There is an extensive literature on the functions of humour (see, for example, Graham, Papa and Brooks 1992, Hay 1995). In this analysis, I focus on the social functions of humour, exploring firstly the ways in which humour serves to express "politeness" (Brown and Levinson 1987), and, secondly, the ways in which humour may express or construct different types of power relations.

Utterances are typically multifunctional, conveying many types of meaning simultaneously. Hence, any instance of humour serves several functions at once. The analysis below inevitably focusses on and highlights particular aspects of the many potential meanings of a humorous utterance.

Humour as a positive politeness strategy

With its basic assumption of cooperative intent, and consideration of participants' "face needs," Politeness Theory (Brown and Levinson 1987) provides an adequate account of humour which orients to the addressee's positive face needs by indicating friendliness, and to the speaker's positive face needs by conveying self-deprecation.

Addressee's positive face needs: solidarity or collegiality

Many instances of humour between equals in the workplace serve to express and strengthen solidarity, and contribute to social cohesion (cf Vinton1989). Example 1 nicely illustrates the way humour functions to build soli darity between participants at a meeting.

Example 1 (2)

Hel:   people might have to take some leave too, with this
       sort of panic before the end of November
Will:  oh I'm saving up all mine [laughs]
Sel:   well people could panic early  [laughs]
Hel:   never happens
Sel:   well the HR coordinators might crack the whip  so
       that people panic early yes?
Toni:  I planned to panic early by taking the school holidays
       off but that didn't work

Problems with getting prepared ahead of time elicit the suggestion that people need to "panic early" - a humorously contradictory concept since the notion of panic is intrinsically tied to last minute pressures. The group share a common reaction to the notion, and this is a nice example of "doing collegiality" through humour (see Holmes, Stubbe and Vine forthcoming).

Speaker's positive face needs: self-deprecation

Humour can protect the positive face needs of the speaker by expressing self-deprecatory or apologetic sentiments. The humour in one interaction between two young men was predominantly of this kind. The speakers laughed as they admitted behaving in ways which were less than fully professional. In example 2, Ray admits to losing touch with a project.

Example 2

Len:   are you going to attend that meeting then?
Ray:   yeah yeah I will
Len:   okay
Ray:   I'd kind of  stopped when I  [laughs] got too
       out of it
[Both laugh]

This is typical self-deprecatory humour, where the speaker anticipates embarrassment and face loss, and responds by turning the source of the embarrassment into a subject of humour. Hence, humour serves as a positively polite device, oriented to participants' need to be valued. By admitting professional fallibility, the speakers express trust in their addressees, which elicits a sympathetic response in the form of a positive response to the humour. Such humour serves to strengthen collegiality.

Humour as a negative politeness strategy

A major focus of Brown and Levinson's (1987) analysis is an account of strategies which may be used to reduce the face threat of speech acts such as directives and criticisms. Again, the analysis is predicated on an assumption that participants wish to interact as harmoniously as possible within the constraints of their institutional roles.

Attenuating face threat of directive

In the workplace data, humour was a regularly used strategy to soften the impact of a directive which could be regarded as a threat to the autonomy of the addressee. Used thus, humour reflects concern for the addressee's negative face needs. In example 3, two analysts are discussing a proposal. Sally attenuates her directive that Tina take the proposal away and work on it further with humour.

Example 3

Sal:   well we've just about done it to death I think
       [laugh] it's about ready for you to give give it
       mouth-to-mouth resuscitation do you think
[Both laugh]

Interestingly, in the workplace data analysed, humour was used in this way more often between equals than downwards. Superiors typically hedged directives using standard politeness strategies such as tags, modal particles, and indirect structures (Holmes 1995).

Attenuating face threat of criticism

Examples in this category indicate awareness of the addressee's positive face needs - to have their wants acknowledged, their values respected and shared. Humour may be used to attenuate direct threats to these wants in the form of Face Attack Acts (Austin 1990), such as criticisms or insults. (1)

Between equals, working together on an issue, humour was a commonly used device for "managing" suggestions that could be interpreted as critical, or which were undoubtedly intended to be critical. In example 4, two advisorsare comparing written evaluations. Andy implies that Vince has been too wordy.

Example 4

Andy: And apart from that I've just got what you've
      got but in a lot less words
[Both laugh]

Politeness Theory suggests such examples reflect the speaker's concern for the hearer's face needs. Within a model which assumes basic cooperative intent, face attack should be avoided. If, because of the institutional requirements of the roles involved, it is unavoidable, then at least it should be attenuated. Humour provides an acceptable attenuation strategy, serving to maintain and negotiate respect between participants.

Thus Politeness Theory appears to account satisfactorily for examples where an underlying cooperative intent can reasonably be assumed. It is less satisfactory in interactions involving a power differential. In such contexts, humour more typically functions as a concealment strategy, a device to sugar the pill.

Repressive humour

In asymmetrical interactions, humour is often used to emphasise power relationships or to subtly control the behaviour of others (eg. Martineau 1972). Pizzini (1991: 477), for example, describes how gynaecologists used humour to "move interview talk along" and "stop patients rambling on [sic]". When humour is used downwards in this way, it can be analysed as evidence of "repressive discourse" (Pateman 1980, Fairclough 1995, Sollitt-Morris 1997). It serves to disguise a less acceptable message.

In example 5, Sheila is advising her colleagues how to extricate themselves from a situation she deplores. She has been diplomatic and kept the tone light throughout a protracted session of implicit criticism of their actions. Suddenly she uses strong language which has a shock effect, causing laughter because of its incongruity.

Example 5

She:   how are we gonna get this thing resolved
       if she's saying no and we're saying no we
       might as well say no forever
Val:   so shall we just
She:   pay the bloody money
[All laugh]

The humourous tone masks S's impatience with her subordinates' handling of the situation, an excellent example of repressive discourse. She wraps the pill up, but it is one she intends they will take.

Contestive humour

Finally, humour may be used by subordinates to challenge the power relations within the institutional structures within which they operate. Here it functions as a critical discourse device, a contestive strategy, one of the few acceptable means available to subordinates who wish to contest, even if only momentarily, the existing authority structures.

In example 6, May, during a planning meeting, uses humour to direct Jenny, her superior, to take responsibility for the next presentation.

Example 6

May:   I'm sure you would just love to show off your
       new whizz-bang computer with all its special
       effects wouldn't you Jenny.
[General laughter]

May does not have the right to tell Jenny what to do. The humour serves as a useful disguise for what could be regarded as an implicit challenge to the superior's authority.

Humour is also used contestively in the workplace data in cases where a subordinate expresses opinions that are "socially risky" (Winick 1976), or where it serves as a cloak for a criticism of a superior, as in example 7, where Harry, the manager arrives late at a meeting.

Example 7

Har:   sorry I'm late
Jon:   no problems we've been enjoying some quiet
       character assasssination while we waited

The humour serves as an instance of contestive discourse, attenuating and thus concealing what could be considered the effrontery of a critical speech act in this context. Such comments are always slightly risky, and, however jocular, there is an underlying "dark side" to the message which is not adequately analysed within the Politeness Theory framework.

An analysis which considers the possibility that humour may function as repressive discourse, thus involves a thorough examination of the underlying power relationships, and the explicitness with which they are being enacted (see Holmes forthcoming).


This paper has suggested that humour functions in complex ways in workplace interactions. While Politeness Theory accounts satisfactorily for the positive politeness functions of humour, an alternative framework is often needed to analyse the functions of humour in situations of asymmetrical power. An adequate model must integrate politeness theory with a critical discourse approach. In other words, we must be able to account not only for cooperative, considerate discourse in a range of contexts, but also for "the dark side of politeness", the repressive discourse of manipulative superiors in asymmetrical contexts, as well as the less than polite manifestations of the underbelly of power, the critical challenges to those in power from irrepressible underdogs. The power of humour lies in its flexibility for all these purposes - it can function as a bouquet, a shield, and a cloak, as well as an incisive weapon in the armoury of the oppressed.


(1) I thank those who allowed their workplace interactions to be recorded, those who assisted with collecting and transcribing the data (especially Kate Kilkenny, Maria Stubbe, and Bernadette Vine), and Meredith Marra and Maryann Nesbitt who read drafts of this paper and provided helpful comments. The research was supported by a NZ Foundation for Research Science & Technology grant.

(2)Space limitations preclude discussion of insults (see Holmes forthcoming).


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