As a society, we often make judgments about people based on small snippets of their behavior. For example, we may judge a person’s confidence, competence, and status on the success of a single joke. Telling a joke to an unfamiliar audience is risky — Will they laugh? Will they be offended? Even if they laugh, will they really think the joke is funny? Take these two tweets:
“First full day as Twitter COO tomorrow. Task #1: undermine CEO, consolidate power.”
—Dick Costolo, the night before he joined Twitter as chief operations officer
“Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
—Justine Sacco, before boarding a flight to South Africa
These jokes had vastly different outcomes. A year after Costolo tweeted his “master plan,” he actually became CEO of Twitter. A day after Sacco posted her tweet, she was fired from her job as a public relations representative for IAC. Costolo’s story shows the benefits of humor for climbing the corporate ladder, while Sacco’s reveals the risks. Why do some people get it right and others fail so miserably? Is humor worth the risk? In a series of experimental studies, my coauthors — T. Bradford Bitterly and Maurice Schweitzer — and I examined when and how humor incurs costs and confers benefits.
In our research, we hypothesized that a joke teller is perceived as more confident than people who don’t tell jokes. Additionally, we hypothesized that an individual who tells a failed joke may be viewed as less competent, especially if the joke is offensive. Finally, we hypothesized that if a successful joke teller experiences a boost in perceived confidence and competence, it would likely improve others’ perceptions of the joke teller’s status.
We ran a series of studies to investigate these predictions. First, we recruited 166 participants to write and present testimonials for FastScoop, a fictional waste removal service that cleans pet owners’ yards. Unbeknownst to participants, the first two individuals to present their testimonials were research assistants with prepared testimonials. The first presenter always read a serious testimonial, but the second alternated between a serious testimonial and the following: “Very professional. After cleaning up the poop, they weren’t even upset when they found out that I don’t have a pet!”
Participants were asked to rate the testimonials and the presenters. We found that the second presenter was perceived as more competent, more confident, and higher in status when presenting the joke testimonial. We replicated these findings in a similar experiment with testimonials for VisitSwitzerland (“The flag is a big plus”). In this experiment we also found that participants were more likely to choose the funny presenter as a group leader for a subsequent task — simply based on his one joke.
Despite these findings, one might imagine a scenario in which a joke falls flat. Do bad jokes increase status too? To answer this question, we asked 274 participants to read a transcript of a job interviewee’s response to the question, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” Some of the participants read that the interviewee responded seriously, while others read that he responded with, “Celebrating the fifth anniversary of you asking me this question.” The joke condition was further subdivided by whether the interviewer laughed (successful joke) or didn’t laugh (unsuccessful joke). Replicating our previous results, individuals who told a successful joke were perceived as more competent, more confident, and higher status than serious individuals. In an interesting twist, participants who told a failed joke were not perceived as worse than participants who gave a serious response, and telling a failed joke actually increased perceptions of the interviewee’s confidence.
Drawing from the Justine Sacco controversy, we investigated a scenario in which a joke could be both unfunny and inappropriate. We wondered whether telling an inappropriate joke would decrease perceptions of status and whether the success of the joke would attenuate this effect. In two experiments, we asked participants to read a transcript of a job interview in which a job candidate responds seriously (no joke), responds with a successful but inappropriate joke, or responds with an unsuccessful and inappropriate joke. We found that inappropriate joke tellers were perceived as more confident than serious responders. However, this confidence boost did not translate into status. Inappropriate-joke tellers were perceived as less competent and lower status than serious responders, even when the joke was funny. These results demonstrate the risk inherent in humor: Telling a bad joke is all right, but telling an inappropriate bad joke is quite costly.
In our final study, we wanted to disentangle the effects of joke success and joke appropriateness. We created scenarios depicting five responses to a job interviewer’s question: serious response, inappropriate successful joke, inappropriate unsuccessful joke, appropriate successful joke, and appropriate unsuccessful joke. We found that telling an appropriate and successful joke increases status but telling an inappropriate unsuccessful joke decreases status. This change in status was completely explained by differences in perceived competence and confidence. All joke tellers experienced a boost in perceived confidence, but only interviewees who told successful and appropriate jokes were perceived as more competent.
Our findings have three broad implications for would-be joke tellers:
First, don’t be afraid of a flop. Bad jokes — as long as they are appropriate — won’t harm your social standing or affect how competent people think you are. They may even increase how confident you seem.
Second, it is almost always advisable to tell an appropriate joke. A well-executed appropriate joke makes you seem more confident, more competent, and higher status. A flop only makes you seem as inept as a serious response.
Finally, don’t make inappropriate jokes with unfamiliar audiences. Even when executed successfully, they don’t confer a boost to your perceived status or competence, and when unsuccessful they can do serious harm to you and your career.
By Alison Wood Brooks, HBR