It’s often recognised and commented upon that we feel drawn to people who make us laugh. Personal ads and dating profiles even have their own abbreviation for those seeking the quality in their dream partner: GSOH (good sense of humour). But how important a role does a sense of humour play in developing professional relationships?
Once you’re likeable, you can make people laugh. And once you make someone laugh, they’ll listen to you.
Athena Kugblenu is an up-and-coming stand-up comedian in the UK who has made a number of television and BBC radio appearances. Kugblenu gravitated towards stand-up comedy after noticing how she was making people laugh at work and the positive effects it was having.
“Making people laugh was always natural to me”, she told me. “If there’s one thing that I was consistently told my whole life, it was, ‘Athena you’re funny’. It’s just followed me everywhere. I also understood that that quality was a really positive thing. It makes people like you.”
While Kugblenu was naturally funny at work, she wasn’t an extrovert. In fact, she often used her comedy to mask her discomfort when around other people, as well as to diffuse some tense situations. She explained, “I think I perhaps used humour to hide behind other issues. I was a very uncomfortable young person; very shy, very introverted.
“I had all these obstacles but I think one of the things that helped me was that people liked having me around. So even though they might have issues with me, being a woman or with regards to my ethnicity, my use of humour, and just being that person, ‘Oh, Athena’s in this meeting, great!’, really helped.
“I wasn’t ever extroverted with it and you don’t have to be funny, just be likeable. Once you’re likeable, you can make people laugh. And once you make someone laugh, they’ll listen to you.”
British humourist and former BBC broadcaster Jeremy Nicholas believes that leaders in business have a tendency to take life too seriously. Like Kugblenu, Nicholas doesn’t think that being funny is the goal, but humour is important. He argues, “A lot of leaders spend all their time thinking about being a great leader and they don’t think about being funny. They always think ‘Oh no, I can’t be funny. Otherwise, I’ll lose credibility’. You don’t have to be funny, just be playful.”
Laughter is the shortest distance between two people
Credibility and status are important for leaders and Nicholas stressed that ‘It is about being a wit, not a clown. You laugh with a wit, you laugh at a clown. Leaders will definitely get laughs if they clown about, but when they need to inspire their team, they may well find that the team won’t follow.”
You build strong relationships with people you know, like and trust. The like part of the equation is key, and humour builds a stronger rapport between people, increasing the tendency for them to like each other. Nicholas’ mantra is that “laughter is the shortest distance between two people”.
Kugblenu stresses, however, that you can’t just rely on humour to build relationships; you need to be thoughtful in the way you do so.
“It’s very unconscious for me”, she explained. “I think in wider social situations, it’s been great. But I’ve needed to dial things down in personal situations. I’ve had to consciously be less funny. That sounds strange, but I’ve had to realize that not everybody wants you to find the funny in every moment. You should hear the funny stuff I never say because I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or be inappropriate. It really makes me so sad.
“I think I leant so much into humour as a young person just to survive, I’ve had to unlearn that as an adult. Now I’m not that same person. I’ve had to unlearn using that as a crutch.”