Men pay a higher price than women when a workplace joke falls flat

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When the jokes fail, do people think worse of the person who told them?

It all depends on whether that person was Brad or Brenda.

Humor can lighten moods, lower your guard, and increase group cohesion. But it is not without risk. People have lost their jobs after botching a joke. At the very least, the audience rings the folks whose gags turn out to be gaffes.

But the consequences of failed jokes do not fall equally on men and women. In our research, we found that women are more likely to get a failed humor pass. When their jokes fell flat, women were seen as nicer, knowledgeable, and even funnier than men.

This finding stands out from all the evidence showing that women are often assessed more harshly for errors than men in many work settings, and comes close to mitigating it. For example, if a female police chief responds too cautiously to a protest, the audience responds harsher than a male chief who does the same.

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Stereotypes, as usual, are at the root of the various reactions to humor. People expect women to bond and connect, and men to take matters into their own hands. People also see the work environment as a place of aspiration. Therefore, given their beliefs about women, they think women do not fit into many professional contexts.

But when the overarching goal of a situation is to connect, whether it’s building a team in the workplace or forming a romantic relationship, the same stereotypes favor women over hamstrings. With bad jokes, watchers are giving women the benefit of the doubt, assuming the best of intentions – that the women are trying to hook up – while believing that the men are just trying to make themselves look good as they try to take the things in hand.

Not so funny

To explore this possibility, we conducted a series of experimental studies with our PhD student, Alexander Fulmer. In our first study, we told people about a woman, Brenda, or a man, Brad, who had a first date with someone they had met online and who was trying to crack jokes. .

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The jokes didn’t land and the date left after the first drink. When we asked our participants to rate the failed joke-teller, people rated Brenda in this situation as nicer, more competent, and funnier than they rated Brad.

In another study, we spoke to one group of people from a manager, Rebecca, and another group of people from a manager, Rob, trying to crack jokes while doing a team building activity with trainees. The trainees did not like the jokes and two out of six left the presentation. As before, participants gave notes indicating that Rebecca seemed nicer, more knowledgeable, and funnier than Rob.

But do people still feel that way about the humor of women and men? If spontaneous assumptions about men and women are the source of these results, then changing the assumptions should also change the results.

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To test this, we handed Brenda or Brad on a date, and then explicitly told attendees that the cashier was trying to make jokes to make himself look better. Now people rated Brenda as as unfriendly and incompetent as they rated Brad. Essentially, women are penalized just as much as men when people have reason to believe that women are trying to show off by telling jokes.

It seems that people naturally see women’s attempts at humor as being appropriately motivated by trying to connect, but don’t feel that way about men’s goals using humor. As a result, even when the jokes go wrong, people think that women are more attentive to their audience than men, which leads people to view female humor errors as less serious than those of men.

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