We speak about 16,000 words a day. Most of us don’t think about them much. But our use of language has a big influence on the way other people perceive us, particularly at work.
Chances are if you’re a woman, self-deprecation is part of your social arsenal. Joking at our own expense tells others we’re friendly and approachable, and being liked is something women tend to care about — a lot. But while self-deprecation may work with other women, it can be a linguistic faux pas if you happen to be a senior woman among a group of men.
I learned all this from Judith Baxter, a professor of applied linguistics at Aston University in the U.K. Baxter spent 18 months studying the ways in which men and women use language — including humor — at work. She focused on men and women leading high-level meetings. “Men were using humor in a more crafted and professional way to manage people,” says Baxter, “whereas the women were less easy with using humor, and there were often cases of humor going wrong when the women used it.”
This is where the (female) heart sinks. Eighty percent of women’s attempts at humor flopped. Meanwhile, 90 percent of men’s jokes were met with instant mirth. Baxter says part of this comes down to cultural factors. “Women aren’t supposed to be funny but men are. Women and men are prepared to laugh at men’s jokes, but men aren’t prepared to laugh at women’s jokes.” While men could tease others and get a laugh, women used the same tactic at their peril.
Women’s minority status in these meetings also played a part (there was an 80/20 men-to-women split). “When women are in the minority they tend to be more defensive, less relaxed, less self-assured in that situation, so humor doesn’t come as naturally to them,” says Baxter. When she looked at humor among middle managers, there were striking differences. There were more women in those meetings, and women got many more laughs.
So where does this leave those of us who enjoy a little banter at the office? I’m not about to abandon my sarcastic tendencies, or the occasional self-induced put-down. Both can be useful (even, dare I suggest, funny) in the right circumstances. Still, at least I know that if I’m outnumbered in the conference room I’ll have to work that bit harder to crack a successful joke.
—Ashley Milne-Tyteis a radio producer and reporter based in New York City. She hosts a bi-monthly podcast called “The Broad Experience” about women in the workplace. Hear the latest episode of "The Broad Experience" about humor below, and don't forget to subscribe to the podcast in iTunes.