do I need to have a better sense of humor at work?

A reader writes:

Your blog has been invaluable to me in my career, especially in the last year since I became a manager. I’ve caught up to the learning curve of my actual job, but there’s one area I feel could use some improvement and I don’t know how to address it on my own.

As I move further up the career ladder, I see how other leaders interact with each other at my institution. They can joke around with each other, tease each other, and just generally interact with each other in that kind of male back-slapping way (including the women). I’ve never been good at casually joking with people, but it’s gotten worse as I’ve gotten older. I feel impatient when other people are joking around in meeting settings and uncertain how to respond when someone tries to jokingly/teasingly engage with me. I could be incorrect that being perceived to have a sense of humor is important to my success, but it feels important, although I wish it didn’t, and I don’t know how to begin to address it. Do you have any ideas?

I wrote back and asked: What’s your sense of humor like outside of work? Do you think you’re comfortable with that kind of thing in other, non-work contexts?

Outside of work my humor tends to the dry/absurd/abstract with a sprinkle of silly. I would say that only by two best girlfriends and my partner really get the full scope of my sense of humor, but I feel comfortable showing some of it in social settings with acquaintances or friends of friends.

I generally hate teasing and often am not very successful at riffing or coming up with responses to jokes from people I don’t know very well, so while it’s not limited to work, I mostly only wish I could participate in that type of banter when I’m at work. I feel it would help me succeed, but I mostly want to improve because I feel like my social facility is dwindling and I would like to be someone who can be at ease in any professional situation. Sometimes I can feel the impatient look on my face as I wait for people to stop joking around so we can get on with things and I am sure if I can feel it, other people can see it!

I don’t know that you have to actively join in on the joking around at work if it’s not your thing. If you force it and it feels unnatural to you, there’s a pretty good chance that it’ll come across as … well, forced and unnatural.

But there are other things you can do to change the dynamic! The most important one is to change your impatience when other people are joking around. I very much know that feeling of “let’s just get to the topic that we’re here to discuss,” but I think you’d be better served by trying to reframe it in your head and seeing what they’re doing as a form of relationship-building that can make work go more smoothly (for some people). If that kind of joking around and bonding isn’t your thing, it’s easy to see it as a waste of time … but for a lot of people, tending to relationships is a sort of prerequisite to the work getting done. If you’re a more task-focused person, you might scoff at that, but there are lots of very effective people who operate that way. (In fact, you should read this great explanation from a commenter about how relationship-focused people see all this. And then if you want more, here’s a more in-depth interview with her.)

Ideally, if you can reframe this in your head and see that there’s actual value in what they’re doing — at least to them, if not to you — your impatience will hopefully stop showing on your face, because you should feel less of it. And that’s pretty important. It’s probably not a big deal that you’re not participating in the joking around, but it could be a big deal if you regularly look like you’re annoyed by it. That risks signaling “I don’t get it here” and/or “I don’t like it here” and/or “I don’t like you.”

That’s step one. Step two, if you’re up for it: Look amused when others are joking around. Smile. Look like you’re enjoying what you’re witnessing. That’s an easier way to signal comfort with the group dynamic than forcing yourself to joke around when it doesn’t feel natural. If you look amused and pleased to be there, that’s going to go a long way. In fact, that might be all you need to do! It’s more important that people feel like you’re not judging them than that you actively participate.

And you can use that same approach if someone tries to joke around with you: Smile. Laugh. You could even just say “ha!” as long as it’s a warm and cheerful “ha!” and not a sarcastic or annoyed one. You want your response, whatever it is, to signal “joke received and appreciated!” even if you’re not responding with a joke of your own.

Doing all of this might even move you to a mindset where you do eventually find yourself joking back. But if not, just by switching from “this is an annoying waste of time” to “this group has a warm and funny vibe with each other and that’s a nice thing,” you’ll probably feel more relaxed and happy in these meetings overall, and that’s going to be good for your relationships with these colleagues. And I strongly bet that will matter more to your success there than whether or not you’re delivering your own comedy routine.

{ 148 comments… read them below }

  1. Justme, The OG*

    No advice, and no comment other than a fistbump to someone else with a dry, absurd, and sometimes silly sense of humor.

    1. AnotherAlison*

      Yeah, I felt like I forgot I wrote this letter. Fortunately, in my field, my sense of humor is par for the course, but sometimes with my spouse’s business associates, I find myself getting really p.o.’d, but he’s like, “Chill, they’re just joking around. . .”

      1. Viola E.*

        AnotherAlison, are you me? I got very lucky to be on a team with a similar sense of humor to mine, but my husband’s coworkers Do Not Get It…

        I love the advice to look amused when others are joking, though. A genuine smile is good enough, if you’re like me and usually don’t show much emotion in your face / don’t laugh out loud unless something is truly hilarious.

    2. sunshyne84*


      I think OP should just try to get to know people one on one. They are joking with each other because they built that kind of relationship. Try to find common ground or similar interests at lunch or after the meetings. As you make stronger connections you will feel more at ease even if you don’t partake in the jokes.

      1. Washi*

        I agree with this. I think if the OP makes a real effort to be warm and friendly, even if not funny, that will go a long way with her coworkers. Ask people about their weekend, offer to grab them something if you’re going to the store cupboard, solicit their opinions on things. If you build some general goodwill, people will interpret any funny face you make during joke time in a much warmer light than if you’re seen as aloof and then won’t even crack a smile in meetings.

    3. Oxford Coma*

      I am super dry, sarcastic, and cynical. My inability to rein it the black humor is probably a part of why I stagnated in previous jobs. Now it is appreciated through pure chance (my boss is my humor clone), and I’m doing well. If only I were more mature and had learned to install a brain-mouth filter at a younger age.

      1. Specialk9*

        Oh lord yes, my Internal Editor* is a lazy sot, I swear half the time he’s high or sleeping on the job. Learning to take a deep breath and slow down was so helpful. (Thanks, tv show Scrubs)

        *That’s actually the term in psychology, I kid you not.

  2. JokeyJules*

    As a naturally Jokey Person (see username), I don’t have the same experience as you, but I imagine it must be tough. I have a hard time on the opposite side of the spectrum, I need a little fun somewhere in my day (I’ll even settle for a Dad Joke!) So I understand the sort of outsider feeling that comes with that.

    Alison’s advice is spot on, especially in the workplace. A smile or a little chuckle would go a very long way with your team! laughter does bring people together!

    1. Dino*

      I just finished an internship and one of the reasons I don’t want to try to get a job there is that no one jokes around! I never thought humor was important to me in a workplace but it really is. So empathy for you, OP! Just from the other direction.

      1. Nervous accountant*

        Oh my goodness same. I love that majority of my coworkers here have some sense of humor. I can appreciate all kinds-dark, dirty, dry, witty, corny, dad jokes etc. I would hate being in an office where no one laughed or joked around.

      2. TrainerGirl*

        One of the things I love most about my team is that we often joke on e-mail threads. The first time I joined in, my teammates were thrilled, but no one is pushed or pressured to do it. Some people just chuckle to themselves and never contribute. We have someone on the team who is leaving at the end of the month, and he was a rather humorless sort. It’s probably best that he go work somewhere that no one jokes. I got the feeling we annoyed him daily.

    2. Jenny*

      I’m like this too. My work did a “strengths-finder” assessment and I scored pretty high in the social strengths. Others scored in analytical strengths.

      I have a role that tends to be salesy at times. I have to create partnerships with outside groups and sell our services. Being able to joke around and chat with people helps a great deal when trying to make deals. If someone likes me, they’re more willing to give me the benefit of the doubt or they’re more willing to compromise on certain things. So chatting about schools with someone who is also a working mom helps connect.

      Seeing it as a strength is a good thing. It is either a strength you can accept you don’t have or a strength you’re going to try to cultivate.

    3. Curly Girly*

      Yes! Same~ I am a natural for funnies, was Class Clown, sometimes I’m not even meaning to be funny, but it just comes out anyway. I’m in my mid-forties now, and I really appreciate all the different personalities and character traits. I love people for who they are, whether they’re more quiet, or serious, or super-focused…whatever it is, whoever they are. You are who you are and I bet that when you accept (embrace) who you are as a more serious/focused person at work, and all the value that brings to the team, you’ll also be able to relax in that environment.
      100% yes!…smiling and a light chuckle is the way to go. Don’t feel like you have to say something witty or tease back. If you’re smiling, it makes everyone else relax. They’ll respect that you’re not the kidder of the bunch. Anyone who doesn’t understand is probably an imposing person anyway, so no matter.

      IF you want to be more comfortable with all things comedy, I highly suggest you invest time in it. I know I can absolutely credit my funnies/wittiness to watching a lot of comedy. I grew up on Carol Burnett, Lucy, Dick Van Dyke…later Seinfeld, Friends, and now Big Bang Theory. I’ve watched a lot of stand-up and SNL. If you find a few funny shows you like, make sure you get time in for comedy. It’s good to laugh and it will impact your own sense of humor. More than half of the kidding around is banter between people emulating something they saw (usually on TV) themselves. If you’ve seen it before, then you’ll ‘get it’ when you see it again with friends or coworkers kidding around. That’s what makes it seem more natural. But really, don’t feel you have to be the one to deliver the comedy, you just want to find a way to be more comfortable around it.

    4. starsaphire*

      I’m kind of with you here.

      Confession: About six months in to the job I’m currently at, I came across a co-worker who was tinfoiling a vacationing co-worker’s desk. My immediate responses were relief and excitement. I’d never seen a desk prank in action before (a harmless one; she was being incredibly careful and nothing was damaged) and I was so thrilled to finally, finally be at a company where this sort of thing might happen!

      Reader, I helped her!

        1. Bleeborp*

          Ooh I would just hate it! I am a jokey person but I am NOT a pranky person and am super relieved I’ve never worked in a pranky place! I mean, I could survive probably if it’s clear everyone else is on board but it is not my preference.

      1. A Girl Has No Name*

        I heart your last line. In fact, I just finished rereading the book (for like the millionth time since high school) this morning.

      1. Snork Maiden*

        Pirate jokes!! Here’s my favourite (although funnier if spoken and not typed):

        What’s a pirate’s favourite letter of the alphabet? You may think it is R (arr), but their first love be the C.

      2. Abe Froman*

        One I invented for my kids:

        Knock knock
        Who’s there?
        Nobody who?

        Then just wait to see how long it takes them to get it.

        1. MTUMoose*

          I am stealing both of those jokes for my Dad Joke collection, and to tell my daughter.
          Also one more Pirate joke ….
          Who is a Pirates favorite Star Wars character? ARrrr-2D2!

  3. Myrin*

    This is such an interesting question! I’m looking forward to reading the comments on it!

  4. Abe Froman*

    Though OP didn’t mention it, there can be cultural issues at play here, too. Lots of cultures place a high value on small talk, joking, and teasing as a way to build rapport and trust. I know the teasing can be especially hard for some people to receive, so it’s important to recognize the different values and assume good intentions.

    1. NYC Weez*

      On the other hand, I was coming here to say that if you work globally, it’s *very* tricky to navigate appropriate humor that can be understood by people from a wide range of cultures. I’ve found that I’ve shifted from the type of sarcastic or language based humor that I normally favor to a more gentle type of humor where the joke is usually based on my enthusiasm for something. That way, even if my foreign colleagues don’t understand the language, they can usually pick up on the emotions.

  5. OtterB*

    Not so much directly about humor, but if OP would like to get better “at riffing or coming up with responses to jokes from people I don’t know very well” maybe take an improv course just for the heck of it? You don’t have to and shouldn’t need to remake yourself, but sometimes those of us who are naturally more buttoned-down can benefit from learning to loosen up.

    1. Old Admin*

      I agree. As a very serious person who often didn’t have good answers to sometimes hurtful jokes, improv courses were a lifesaver!

      1. EmKay*

        Just curious, were the jokes hurtful on purpose or by accident? Because if it’s on purpose then that is not funny.

        1. g*

          Even if they are intentionally hurtful (and it can be hard to tell), having a quick response often takes the sting out of it.

    2. Hey-eh*

      +1 to the improv course idea! I took an 8 week intro course a couple years ago to help with my social anxiety and it was so much fun. It was VERY uncomfortable at times, but that discomfort would eventually fall away into “this is okay” and then into “this is fun!”. The nice thing that I learned from the course was that improv =/= funny necessarily. We played some games that ended up being really emotional or very sad or very happy, but not always funny. If OP’s sense of humour falls naturally to the silly side, you could have a blast with an improv course. Take it alone so you don’t feel judged by people you know well. It really helps you learn to listen to what people are saying too! I still use the tricks and games that I was taught in my work and everyday life.

    3. Silicon Valley Girl*

      Agreed! Improv skills are helpful, not just for humor, but for being able to think on your feet & reacting appropriately in the moment. It’s the kind of mental stretching that you don’t get in everyday life, but is very useful in everyday life!

    4. Slow Gin Lizz*

      I’ve never taken an improve course but I learned the “yes, and” rule a long time ago and it is the best rule. OP, even if you don’t take an improve course, learning this one rule could be really helpful.

    5. Tech worker*

      Seconding the improv class. Took one that really improved my ability to think on my feet, which is great in leadership, not just for joking around.

    6. Where's the Le-Toose?*

      I did two improv classes and then met up with a group where we did improv informally for about 18 months. We actually even did a show at a bar, just for grins!

      Anyway, in my first class, a Fortune 50 company was actually paying one of their employees to attend the class because the employee was too rigid in his interactions with coworkers. I would highly recommend improv to task oriented people because improv actually has a fairly rigid structure on how scenes develop. What you say isn’t scripted, but taking the lead from your partner with “yes, and” and listening to your partner help develop great workplace skills!

  6. Snarkus Aurelius*

    Context is important too because office humor can be a powerful exclusion tool. You didn’t mention that, OP, but the thought crossed my mind because I’ve been on the receiving end of it so many times.

    Just last week, I couldn’t make a work happy hour, and the inside jokes from that event have yet to stop. The reason I don’t smile or respond is because it would be fake. I have no idea what the inside joke is, and I have a hunch I had to be there to find it funny anyway.

    Throughout my temping and intern days, I also found office humor to be so exclusionary. I used to have to wait for the laughing to end or ignore the references in group emails.

    In all of these scenarios, no one bothered to clue me in. Similarly, when I’m in on office humor, and I know someone is not, I either explain the joke or cut the laughing short.

    Probably not directly relevant to your question, but I had to say something because this behavior can be damaging long-term.

    1. Renata Ricotta*

      Sometimes work humor can be exclusionary, but I think the vast majority of the time it is just a way to build rapport with people in a way that is not directed *at* anybody else. If I have a positive, pleasant interaction with person A at the water cooler, it is not because I wish to exclude or be negative to person A standing a few feet away. Furthermore, it’s likely that OP doesn’t signal an openness to this sort of ribbing, so people are intending to be considerate when they don’t joke around with her. I would only ever gently tease my colleagues who clearly enjoy it, because otherwise teasing is mean!

      Also, it’s not fake to smile when people are talking about an event you didn’t attend! I missed a work event last summer that apparently included a hilarious game of mafia – people are still talking about it. It was nobody’s fault I missed the event (I had a work trip), but I still smile when they talk about it with each other because the people I am with are having a warm and fun conversation with each other to reminisce, and I can smile at that without pretending like I was there. If it’s going on long enough that I just find it boring to listen to because I wasn’t there, I try to redirect the subject, but if that isn’t easy, I just wait it out.

    2. LouiseM*

      Do you think your coworkers mean to be exclusionary? You said yourself that you probably had to be there to find it funny, and it’s usually true that explaining a joke takes away the funnies. So that’s probably why your coworkers haven’t explained the joke to you. I totally get that it stings to be excluded (believe me, been there), but your coworkers probably aren’t thinking that way and thought nothing of you not attending the happy hour! Sometimes reframing can be helpful.

    3. Thlayli*

      It sounds like you feel as if they are having fun at you. They’re not having at you, they’re just having fun.

      1. We are not amused*

        That’s not necessarily true. Humour absolutely can be used deliberately to exclude. We don’t know it wasn’t in this case.

        1. Thlayli*

          I acknowledge that humour CAN be used to be exclusionary. Snarkus also states that in the past they have been subjected to exclusion via humour.

          However there are multiple indicators in snarkus’s post that that is NOT the case in this specific circumstance:
          – I could not make a work happy hour – this indicates that snarkus was invited and just wasn’t able to make it
          – just last week… the jokes have yet to stop – a week is really not a long time to keep up a joke about something that happens on a night out. If they were still going on about it months later, maybe that might be a big deal
          – I would have to be there to find it funny. They are not excluding snarkus by not explaining the joke, there’s just no point in explaining it because you had to be there.

          In addition, snarkus’ states that their reaction to normal humour when they are in on the joke and someone else isn’t is to either explain the joke or cutting the laughter short. That’s a pretty extreme reaction to a normal everyday event.

          All of which leads me to believe that snarkus has had previous bad experiences with being intentionally left out of a joke, and so is overreacting to normal non-intentional times they are left out of jokes, including feeling left out when they are invited to events but just can’t make them.

          So I’m gonna stick with my original advice to snarkus: I’m sorry for whatever happened in your past to make you so sensitive to this issue, but I would bet money that in this circumstance they are not having fun at you, they are just having fun.

          1. g*

            Agreed. I’ve been there before, feeling everyone is excluding you from the joke. I became a lot happier when I realised people rarely explain jokes because it ruins them. Sitting silently feeling sad about not getting the joke just means you’re not being part of the next joke.

    4. Cassandra*

      To add to Snarkus Aurelius’s well-taken point, the word “teasing” from the OP’s post set off my “this may not be okay” meter.

      Who’s being teased, and on what basis? Is teasing exclusively in a hierarchically-downward direction? Is it mostly (or worse, exclusively) aimed at the same person or set of people? Is teasing deployed against people who are not in the room? Is it passive-aggressive, microaggressive, or outright harassing?

      Humor is not, not, NOT always innocent. It can be a workplace weapon.

      Now, I hasten to say that there isn’t anywhere near enough information in OP’s post to know where to peg this workplace on the innocent-to-evil continuum. I just think that if OP hasn’t watched the interactions with this set of questions in mind… that might be a worthwhile thing to do before deciding how or even whether to join in.

      1. Specialk9*

        I had a good friend who became an ex-friend and then a coworker, and one thing she loved to do was to create tiny bubbles of inclusion with herself inside, and everyone else outside. She’d make these inside references and inside jokes, and I’d try to open it back up to people (if I even got it, most times I was baffled and finally decided there was never even an inside joke in n the first place) but then we’d weirdly always be talking about college at work with people who didn’t go to college with us.

        This was before I knew how to use my words. Life was SO much harder before I learned to speak up directly!

    5. HannahS*

      Yeah, when the humor is just extended inside jokes, it gets pretty exclusionary. I was in an INTERVIEW once where the Big Boss and Little Boss made lots of inside jokes in front of me, and I was like “…haha?” Am I supposed to laugh? Are you showing me that you’re a “fun” place to work? As it turns out, it’s just that they were a bit awkward sometimes and turned out to be lovely people. But still, during team meeting it made it awkward when people made inside jokes.

  7. lyonite*

    In general, the favorite person of someone who’s told a joke is the person who laughs at it. Don’t worry about joining in; if you can manage to be a good audience you will make yourself very popular.

    1. Ruth*

      Agree 100%. As that smart-ass, snark miester, I love nothing more than an audience. I’ll think you’re great if you’re my audience!

      1. Specialk9*

        I am not funny. I used to try to be, and… Ooh no good. Now I work on being a good audience. Somebody has to be in the adoring throng!

    2. Hey Karma, Over here.*

      Very much this.
      You will gain a lot by just listening and smiling.
      The people who are genuinely laughing are the ones who get the joke. They get the joke because they have a relationship with the joke teller.
      You are not laughing and you are getting frustrated because it’s a waste of time…to you. (And it may always be. We are who we are.)
      But if it’s important for the majority, you should give a little.
      And the pay off will be that you will get the joke. And the more you get the joke and relate to people, the less foreign and off track it will seem.
      Bonus points if you can take cleverly/effectively take someone’s off track remark and segue back into business.
      Make that your goal. Kill ’em with cleverness.
      Learn e

    3. BadWolf*

      Or ask someone to retell a funny story — then you’ve invited humor, show you remember even small things and highlighted one of your employees.

      Caveat, could go awry if it’s a big group and person is put on the spot. Or if there’s something about the joke/story that may be particularly awkward with a new audience.

      1. Mrs. Fenris*

        Yes to this…I used to work with a close-knit group with some pretty large personalities, and inside jokes abounded. When someone new joined the team, it was totally ok when they went, “The paper plate incident? Ok, I have to hear this.” Everyone was delighted to have a new audience for the story, the new person felt more included, and we knew the new person had a sense of humor too.

    4. myswtghst*

      This is such a great point! Too many clowns makes for a terrible circus, especially if there is no audience. You don’t need to pretend to be in on inside jokes if you aren’t, or laugh at things which truly are exclusionary or offensive, but sometimes just generally seeming receptive (smiling, nodding, laughing) is more than enough.

  8. Danae*

    No advice for the OP, but all my empathy. I’m a reserved person who’s intelligent but not quick-witted, and banter is just something I’m not capable of (and is dangerous for me to try, because I’m not good at judging social situations). I also don’t understand teasing, because why would you say something mean to someone if you’re not intending to hurt them?

    I tend to take the anthropologist approach and try to figure out what the group dynamic is accomplishing, and try to figure out the most appropriate places to smile and laugh to show that I’m working with the group socially. I might not need the chitchat, but other people do, so I try to just chill about it.

    1. hugseverycat*

      I also have this problem — reserved, intelligent (at least I think so) but not quick-witted. I don’t like teasing, and like the OP I get super impatient with people who “waste” time joking around in meetings. I will try this more anthropologist approach.

      1. Cordoba*

        I’m neither reserved nor intelligent, but suggest that it might be helpful to think of mutual good-natured teasing as being comparable to sparring in a sport like boxing or judo.

        Even though getting punched or thrown does technically “hurt” sparring is fun because everybody involved knows that there’s no malice behind it and is being careful to limit their force so that there are no real injuries or serious pain.

        From what I’ve seen, that second part about pulling punches so nobody gets hurt is where people often have a hard time when it comes to teasing – they think “just joking” means everything is fair game. The fact that you have successfully teasingly bantered with somebody about their silly socks or the day the drinking fountain sprayed them probably does not mean that you should expect to be able to tease them about their divorce or their religion or something like that.

        1. myswtghst*

          This is a really great analogy. Good-natured teasing usually means pulling your punches a bit, and it often means you have to have some sort of pre-existing relationship with the person you’re teasing, so you know what their limits are. Because of that, OP is probably best served by observing the joking and being aware of their facial expressions and body language, rather than trying to jump right in with a joke.

    2. The Other Dawn*

      I’m the opposite. I’m not reserved and I do like to joke around, although I don’t like to waste a lot of time in a meeting doing that. It’s fine to start off/end a meeting with some humor, but we still need to get things done.

      In my family, if someone isn’t teasing you it means they don’t like you. I was always able to tell who my dad liked and who he didn’t. He was polite to those he didn’t like, but really teased (mercilessly, sometimes) those he liked. My husband used to think my father didn’t like him because of all the teasing, but he came to understand that is my family’s way. Eventually he gave it right bad to my dad, which my dad really loved.

    3. SarahTheEntwife*

      Yes to not-quick-witted! I can participate in banter with family and very close friends because I’ve practiced enough that I speak our small-group “language” well, but with almost anyone else I have to spend so much processing power following the conversation that it’s hard for me to really chime in appropriately. I think I come off as reserved a lot of the time when in reality my brain is going “Oh! X made a friendly-teasing comment! I appreciate the gesture! Now I should say something back…about…their socks?” and by then the natural moment has long since passed.

      I should possibly take an improv class or something but I had a lot of unfortunate experiences with improv in high school drama club and I’m still kind of leery.

      1. Specialk9*

        I’m still laughing about the post someone made last week about the element of social awkwardness that has the thought process ~ ‘words! People making words! I should make words too!’

        I died at that, and love that you just spelled out a similar thought process.

  9. Lady By The Lake*

    I was also going to mention an improv class. I see another poster has mentioned it, but it is a way to open up to possibilities and might be particularly helpful for you since the number one rule of improv is that everything is right. It definitely helped me in having a more positive approach to coworkers.

  10. Bea*

    I had my humor kick me in the ass after a dickhole boss at first loved it and joked right back, only to use it as a weapon in the end because he decided he didn’t like me much anymore. So your reserved quality isn’t all that bad in the end, I reeled it in a lot after that stinger.

    You don’t need to change yourself. Someone faking humor is painful, it won’t flow.

    I agree with Alison that you just need to work on your own peeve about others goofing off. As long as it’s not doubling the meeting length, if it’s dragging things on that’s different to me. I always hated side banter that wasted time because I was crushing 60hr weeks due to the 2-3 hours people stole from me by wastefully drawing out meetings. But nobody else was pulling my amount if weight, they were hourly so it wasn’t their fault either but man did it burn me out faster.

    1. Triple Anon*

      Right! I think that being reserved with humor at work is overall a good thing. If I let my guard down, my humor is more on the crass side. Appropriate for friends but not work. Even then, sometimes you think everything’s fine and then someone repeats something out of context later and it makes you look really bad (intentionally or not). I keep getting more careful about it.

      I think the trick is to work on humor that can’t be misunderstood or used against you. It’s a fine art, but it gets easier with practice.

  11. Amber Rose*

    My standard response: “haha, yeah.” Followed by “so about X…” or whatever.

    I’ve a good sense of humor but I’m bad at responding to jokes anyway. And I get a lot of them. Basically everyone I work with plus most of our customers and suppliers like to joke around. It doesn’t bother me, but I also don’t know how to engage with it. A small laugh and agreeing tends to work pretty well though.

    With some exceptions. Like I got this a little while ago: “hey, is [coworker] around? Is she drunk?”
    In which case the answer was something like, “haha, I’m going to tell her you asked that.” Obviously I’m not going to say yes.

    1. in_on_the_joke*

      My standard response is “yeah, right!” Sometimes it’s like “yeeeeeeeeah, right!” and sometimes like “yeah, riiiiiiight!” but usually the wording is the same. For me, I often worry about misinterpreting the “joke” (plenty of times that I’ve thought someone was saying something ridiculous to me but they were being 100% serious) compiled with the fact that my personal lifestyle really differs from that of my coworkers (I camp, drink beer, get outside, am a liberal, etc … while they are not those things/don’t do those things).

      The beauty of having a standard response like this is that the joke-teller usually interprets the “yeah, right!” as “oh she GETS it” while, if the joke turns out to not be a joke, it could also be interpreted as regular workplace enthusiasm.

      I’d be curious to know if anyone else has convenient phrases like this that work in these kind of situations.

  12. MLB*

    I honestly mean no disrespect, but it sounds like OP needs to lighten up a bit. I’m a shy person when I’m around new people. But I’m very sarcastic and love to be goofy. When I meet new people I observe how they speak (I also have a potty mouth) and interact with others. Only once I know I can trust them to a degree and not offend will I unleash my full and true personality. I’ve had co-workers say they were surprised when they got to know me. Since OP said she’s a bit silly in her personal life, but only with a handful of people, I think she needs to incorporate some of this sense of humor into the rest of her life. Yes, you may work with some who’s humor will cross a line, or others who act like 5 year olds that are annoying, but if you show your true self and stop holding back, you’re most likely to be happier and not so worried that others may think you lack a sense of humor.

    1. Technical_Kitty*

      It sounds like that probably works really well for you. I suspect from OP’s writing she doesn’t feel comfortable incorporating that aspect of her life into work, and the issue is with not being able to engage in current office culture easily with her reports. I don’t think it’s about “lightening up a little” (and I have never found that phrase to not be condescending), it’s more about understanding the environment and the place she wants in it. That may mean letting go a bit, but it may mean simply adjusting how OP interacts with her reports. As someone else suggested, improve classes are very good for honing interactions.

    2. Seriously?*

      I don’t think it is helpful to tell someone to “lighten up”. Personally, I hate getting told that. If I don’t find something funny, that is not a flaw in me that needs to be fixed. Reading people goes both ways.

      1. Bleeborp*

        “Lighten up” alone isn’t terribly useful but is essentially what Alison suggests, just with some more concrete examples how one would lighten up. Chilling out on being so worried that people are joking instead of getting the meeting underway because it isn’t exactly the way they would prefer people interact is lightening up. Being less judgmental about the sense of humor of your coworkers and trying to smile instead of scowl is lightening up. Now, I can see if people are making cruel, insensitive, offensive jokes and you’re being told to “just lighten up” and pretend the jokes are appropriate that’s a problem but that doesn’t seem to be the issue here.

    3. We are not amused*

      Ah, the good old “lighten up” comment. How thoughtful, empathetic and helpful you are!

      You do know that someone’s “full and true personality” may actually be to only be goofy/silly around those they are already close to, and that they’re not actually holding a flood of ridiculousness back when they don’t exhibit this around others, right? Because that’s a pretty obvious and normal thing, and your comment reads as very judgemental and making a lot of unfounded assumptions that infer otherwise.

    4. LouiseM*

      Sorry to see the negative response you’re getting here, MLB. It seems to me you had positive intentions behind this comment. Taking the phrase “lighten up” so personally does indeed suggest that folks need to, well, lighten up!

      1. EddieSherbert*


        I think you made some good points, MLB. I also tend to be very reserved at first and take awhile to open up. I’ve been at my current role for three years, and took a long time to “lighten up.” AND I basically start over whenever a new person joins the team and get quieter again (maybe they will be easily offended? I don’t know).

        Even within the past few months I’ve managed to “shock” people because I had a comeback to a silly comment (“shock” as in “Whoa, Eddie, you were sarcastic!”).

      2. pleaset*

        ” Taking the phrase “lighten up” so personally does indeed suggest that folks need to, well, lighten up!”


      3. NaoNao*

        One of the reasons “lighten up” is not helpful is that it’s not concrete. It’s like “just do it!” or “calm down!” It’s an order that gives no steps or tips or ideas on how to achieve what you’re telling them to do.
        If the OP could magically just “lighten up!” than he/she would have by now, I am 1000% sure. It’s like telling depressed people to “cheer up”. The OP is understandably concerned about this and would love to “lighten up”. She’s asking a) am I overthinking this, do I really need to and b) if so, how can I do that.
        Darken down!

        1. LG*

          It doesn’t need to be concrete to be helpful. It echoes the advice to “reframe” which is arguably just as nebulous, but better-received because it preserves the letter-writer’s feelings more.

        2. Llama Grooming Coordinator*

          I mean, in isolation it’s totally unhelpful, and if MLB had left it at that I’d be more inclined to agree. But they also added on their own experience and suggested that the LW bring a little bit of her stated out of work personality in to work. LW is self admittedly reserved by nature, which is fine…but she also sounds like she’d be a fun person once you get to know her, and I hope her teams get to see a little bit of that!

          That said, I kind of get what you mean and why the initial response to MLB’s comment was harsh: I might be reading too far into this, but LW sounds like a woman in a male dominated field. And that phrase IS often used to dismiss valid concerns about inappropriate behavior. But I don’t think that’s how it’s being used in this case.

          1. bonkerballs*

            Context matters. Telling a woman to smile can also be a very fraught, sexist statement, but we all know that’s not in any way what Alison means when she suggested it to OP.

            1. Llama Grooming Coordinator*

              Exactly! But the issue is that it’s super hard to figure out context through the internet – Alison is well known enough that we can safely assume good intentions, but stripped of that (like, let’s say I wrote that), it’d be harder to assume. I was trying to say that I could understand why people got riled up by telling LW to lighten up, even though I think they’re ultimately misguided.

    5. Mamaganoush*

      MLB, I’m sorry folks are whacking at you for a well-intentioned suggestion. In fact, a pretty good suggestion — it’s one I got a lot many years ago, because while I have a good sense of humor and am a pretty cheerful person, I saw work as WORK, and socializing and joking around in the workplace as wasting time that could be better spent working. I had an excellent manager who helped me understand that what I saw as time-wasting was a way of connecting with others that was really important for working collaboratively. I’ve worked in very team oriented offices and understanding this has really helped me a lot. Even though I still feel impatient with it, lol! The OP doesnt have to learn to tell jokes (I’m terrible at it!), but listening appreciatively, smiling, and, if you think the joke is a good one, laughing will help you connect with others and will help them connect with you.

  13. Shinobi*

    Google did some really interesting research on what teams that work together more effective. One of their most interesting findings was that it wasn’t necessarily personalities or communication skills or overall skill, it was the sense that everyone felt psychologically safe at work. They felt like they could be themselves and trust the people they worked with. That meant they had more energy to bring to the task. (Here’s one article on it if you’re interested!

    So I think it’s important that you don’t try to force yourself to fit into their mold, not only would it probably not work, but it would probably not be effective. What you can do is look around and see the fact that people feel comfortable joking and interacting with each other as a sign that they are likely working more effectively with each other. And maybe someday you’ll get to that level of trust with them as well. (And maybe not, and that’s ok!)

    Plus, you can be on the look out for anything that might look like bullying or when things might be crossing the line. There is nothing wrong with saying “Hey I know all in good fun, but it looked like Jack was not as amused by our have you seen my stapler joke so we should probably find a different approach.”

    1. twig*

      I haven’t read that article yet — it’s open in another tab to read later (after I get some actual work done)

      BUT this concept is sooo familiar to me. I’m in my first-ever job where I feel like I can actually be myself (with some work-ready censorship, of course RE language etc). I’ve been here 8 years, now and it actually took a year or two to settle in and open up. It’s so much LESS stressful not worrying about keeping my “work mask” on. I can devote that energy to my ACTUAL work

  14. Technical_Kitty*

    I have a similar issue as OP, not a fan of the blokey/backs slappy/take the piss office humour and do not engage in it well. I used to be the avatar of the phrase “well, that escalated quickly”, now they just scatter when partaking in that particular brand of “humour” and that makes me a little happy inside.

    If you have reports and want to engage with them you can try the subtle jokes or observances. You don’t have to have the same jokes or style as anyone else, you can have your own. I’ve never been a fan of the hive mind for office interactions.

        1. fposte*

          Short for “banter”–it’s laddish British “friendly ribbing.” Article linked in followup.

  15. Oxford Coma*

    LW, you say you can feel your annoyed face. Why not practice a mild half-smile and learn how that feels, as well? If you appear engaged and appreciative, you can probably blend just as well without having to go through the theater of fake laughs and awkward attempts at banter.

    1. KR*

      This and Alison’s second half of her answer were my thoughts when I was reading this question. I tend to think of funny and witty things to say after the fact when I’m at home. I am not at ease in most social situations and usually avoid speaking so I won’t embarrass myself. I am a big fan of vaguely smiling and watching the conversation almost like I’m watching a play or performer. Sometimes I will make a small comment about the conversation or laugh with everyone else and even though I’m not really saying anything it seems like I’m involved with the joking.

    2. Specialk9*

      I have a very slight smile on my face when I’m out and about at work. It makes my mood feel better (old waitressing trick), and signals positivity.

  16. BlueberryHill*

    I work with a manager who is a warm, open person who is very pleasant to interact with.
    But upon reflection, I don’t think I’ve ever heard him make a joke.
    But he is considered good humored – he enjoys his interactions with coworkers -you can hear him smile when he speaks. So don’t worry about making jokes. Think about what at your company makes a good manager, leader, team member.
    Being open, being receptive to others, being a good listener (listen to jokes!), being engaged with others, being energized. Sometimes a little change (making eye contact and saying hello; smiling when you enter a room/meeting) can make a big difference.

    1. Renata Ricotta*

      Totally agree! Good-humored is so much more important than joking around. Jokes, while a good way to establish pleasant relationships with people, are a little dangerous because people have different thresholds for considering things inappropriate, so there is a fair bit of room for offense. Being a very good-humored person almost never goes wrong. Like BlueberryHill says, part of being good-humored is not getting annoyed by the fact that other people are enjoying themselves – try to reframe it as a good thing that you yourself should be happy they are doing because it makes their work life more pleasant and collegial, even if you are not directly involved.

    2. Tardigrade*

      Great comment. I totally agree that OP could easily work on being good humored rather than learning to tell jokes herself.

    3. Specialk9*

      I think something else that deeply endears you to people is to be the person who asks the follow-up question rather than waiting impatiently to speak. Let people know you’re listening, that they’re interesting, that you care and that you remember. (Even if it means making notes in their Outlook calendar!)

    4. Mad Baggins*

      This!! My office is very good-humored but nobody is telling jokes or teasing each other. It’s so much easier to be pleasant than to be funny. And I think it’s easier to strike a balance between too-goofy-now-someone’s-offended and funeral-home.

  17. Roscoe*

    Its funny, I’m definitely a mix of both. I’m more of a relationship oriented person. But I admit, I hate meetings. Mainly because I feel a majority of them are pointless. So if I’m being called to a pointless meeting, I’d rather just get things going and not just joke around. However, just hanging out in the office, I’m definitely someone who values relationships, jokes around, all that stuff

  18. Tim C.*

    My empathies to the OP. I am a (recovering) introvert that still finds such banter exhausting. I am goal driven and getting through all the chit chatty witticisms and teasing was an obstacle to getting my work done. I too became exasperated. I then began to look at it as just another work challenge and stopped taking it personally. It helped to clue into what others have said and follow their leads. I have become pretty good at getting people to focus back to the current task. One of my techniques was to agree and amplify. “Yes! Not only is the coffee I make strong, but it has been declared a controlled substance by the DEA as well as banned in at least 2 states and by major league sports teams.” It takes some wind out of their sails when their target agrees with them and is much better than asking “are you through?”.

    Just a warning though to avoid teasing. I sometimes felt lines were crossed that could cause people to take offense. A stern look and “not funny” is sometimes necessary.

  19. CaliCali*

    Given the way you’ve described yourself, I think if you follow Alison’s advice about seeing the joking as a relationship-building tool, you may relax about it and, in that relaxation, find that your own humor comes through a bit easier — and furthermore, you can use it to your advantage. I tend to be on the jokey, funny side, but I’ve also used it as a tool to get the meeting back on track when things are digressing a bit too far (either because of banter OR because of a work-related digression that’s not relevant to the meeting topic). In building rapport with people, I can now drop a joke about “I am sure we can discuss that all more in a meeting THAT IS NOT THIS ONE but let’s get back to it” and everyone laughs and then, indeed, gets back to it. Humor’s another social lubricant, and even though you may not share the exact sense of humor described, being good-natured and letting your personality come through will likely pay off.

  20. Anonyna*

    Alison, thank you for this answer. I’m keeping your response in mind for when trying to explain social relationships to my son with autism. He knows he’s supposed to respond to people/situations but often has no idea what the appropriate response is so he ends up looking like he’s ignoring people or being awkward. Your response is the straightforward answer I’ve been trying to give him when discussing how he should respond to his classmates and I’m so appreciative.

  21. Dogmama*

    I worked as an assistant manager in a retail environment where I was prone to switch from very relaxed and jokey to stressed and short with everyone on a dime. It got better once I joined the management team but the responsibilities certainly weigh on you especially when you are responsible for a group of people who in a high-stress situation might not be pulling their weight. Once I left that job I became incredibly stress free and happier (go figure), but I also was able to look back and realize in many situations I could have handled myself better in certain situations. It’s probably impossible to put yourself in that mindset but I agree with Alison in that you should certainly try to see things from their perspective and why their jokes are funny. Also, sometimes directness does work. Saying, “I’m sorry I don’t think this is the time to be joking because I’m trying to focus on XYZ”, in a calm demeanor won’t cost you much and it will help establish who you are as a person to your co-workers. You shouldn’t feel ashamed to state the kind of person you are, people can always readjust their behaviors if they’re clashing with yours. It’s a matter of addressing it professionally and politely, while keeping their feelings in mind.

  22. Nocleverusername*

    My antennae went up at the “male back-slapping” behavior. Alison, I assume you clarified this with OP, but these are just jokes like “Haha wasn’t it funny last week when Steve gave his presentation in a gorilla costume” and not “Haha women aren’t as good as men” right? I don’t think I would be comfortable in a “male back-slapping” environment either, but that’s why I don’t work in an office, I guess.

  23. Jean*

    I think the gender part is getting missed here. I don’t know how the culture is in this specific workplace, but I’ve been in situations where excluding or demeaning a woman is blamed on her supposed lack of humor.

    1. Amber Rose*

      This letter doesn’t involve anyone being demeaned or excluded though. This is just what the LW wants to work on, so going into gender stuff doesn’t sound too helpful.

      1. Anonymeuse*

        I don’t know, I think it’s definitely relevant context. Not fitting in with the old boy’s club is a thing that a lot of women have to deal with, and too many workplaces still expect women to fit themselves into that culture if they want to succeed, whether or not they want to or it comes naturally.

        Plus, really, the “looking visibly frustrated” thing definitely has a gendered angle that you can’t really ignore. A dude can probably get away with looking somewhat frustrated in a lot of workplaces where a woman couldn’t (which sucks and it shouldn’t be a thing, but as a woman with RBF I’ve definitely had to put effort into mildly-interested-listening-face).

    2. Miles*

      Except that in this case it isn’t a “supposed lack of humor”, OP says she really doesn’t express her humour at work. She also doesn’t say anything about being excluded or demeaned and says that her coworkers try and bring her in on the joking. OP isn’t not joking around because she’s a woman, she just as a person isn’t into joking at work. There’s no reason to bring gender discrimination into this conversation because there’s no evidence it’s going on.

    3. Plague of frogs*

      The OP says they “just generally interact with each other in that kind of male back-slapping way (including the women).”

      Honestly, I don’t know why she brought up gender at all, since they’re all doing it. It reads to me more like this is behavior that she associates with men, and she’s bothered that she, a woman, is being invited into it.

  24. SophieK*


    It sounds like you don’t actually like these people. That’s fine. You don’t have to. But radiating hostility around people who have a good rapport is evil.

    I don’t actively hate very many people, but I do hate people who crap all over other people’s joy. Maybe some of your coworkers have other challenges in their lives and one of the bright spots in their world is bantering with a particular person. WHO ARE YOU to be unhappy at other people’s happiness?

    You seem to feel that your time is being wasted. But consider this–when you bring somebody down, they often have to actively recover to return to their previously good mood and you have stolen from them.

    What if these people all died tomorrow? Would you be ok with living with the knowledge that you hated them for being happier than you?

    1. Seriously?*

      Whoa! She never said that she hated them for being happy! You are bringing your own negative emotions to this one. She said that she dislikes wasting time, and if she is not a part of the jokes/humor then it feels like a waste of time. And she was trying to find a way to deal with it better. The whole point of your post is to “bring someone down” and it is very unkind.

    2. CM*

      SophieK, this is way over the top! The OP just isn’t a banter person. She’s not saying she hates anybody or radiates hostility.

    3. in_on_the_joke*

      whoa, I think you really jumped the shark on this one SophieK … this is an extreme response.

    4. We are not amused*

      Wow. Want some dip for that massive chip on your shoulder?

      What an ugly, unpleasant and unwarranted response. Do you always interpret other people’s behavior and words in such a mean spirit, or did this topic touch a nerve for you?

    5. TheVet*

      It…doesn’t sound like OP “hates” anyone because they’re happy. They just aren’t as jokey as the rest of the staff and is seeking tips on how to be more involved as opposed to mildly annoyed.

    6. McWhadden*

      This is a completely unmerited hateful response. And if it takes someone not feeling comfortable with office joking to make you become this cruel the idea that you don’t hate very many people isn’t particularly believable.

  25. Guacamole Bob*

    This reminds me of the letters here about “my office culture involves a lot of oversharing and I like boundaries.” A lot of commenters in that situation have success with finding a few topics they can talk about freely (cats, a TV show, sports, other hobbies), and how that deflects attention from the things they aren’t sharing.

    I think OP needs to figure out an analogue on the humor front. Don’t worry about the humor per se, but find some other way to come across as a warm and friendly part of the group. Being a good audience for colleague’s jokes, engaging in chit chat, being the one to organize the happy hours or the March madness pool, keeping a well-stocked candy jar in your office – whatever fits best with OP’s personality. Heck, with some of my coworkers the fact that I have my office covered in plants and that I stock like eight kinds of tea has warmed up the relationship because it makes me seem like a person and not just an automated email address that responds to questions about teapot spouts. It’s okay to be a little off-beat, even, as long as it’s within reason.

    In most offices you don’t need to have a specific sense of humor, but being seen as dramatically less laid-back or more reserved than colleagues can create barriers to working well together (and the opposite can be true in more formal workplaces, where being too laid-back and jokey can be seen as unprofessional).

    1. fposte*

      I really like this point, GB–this is a variant on the “I’m not finding the wavelength” problem that recurs in a lot of different ways around work relationships. And sometimes the best tactic is to be comfortable with not being on that wavelength and find another one.

      1. CMart*

        Guacamole Bob’s suggestion describes exactly what I used to do when I worked in the restaurant industry. I’m an accountant now, which is exactly what people expect me to be when they meet me (a fun and funny accountant, but a buttoned-up bean counter to the core) but when I was bartending I was very often the odd personality out.

        But I always managed to make friends and “get in”, and I now realize it’s because I found other ways to fit my genuine self into the much more bombastic culture. The loud, “male back slappy” locker-room type people LOVE the unexpected, acerbic zingers from The Quiet One. You make enough wry observations within earshot and people begin to notice that hey, The Quiet One is actually really funny. Or while they were all goofing off I was tidying up and observing the surroundings and found that I vastly increased my social value when I began bringing the funny/interesting things I was observing to everyone else’s attention.

        I’m not sure there’s an office analogue, but walking up to a group of laughing coworkers to interject “you guys, when you get a chance go walk by Seat 15. There’s a peacock in their purse. Swear to God” is a fast way to get people to like you.

    2. AMPG*

      I’m sort of like the OP in that I have a fairly specific sense of humor that I tend to keep on a bit of a leash when I’m with people I don’t know well. I’ve found that when people are making those sorts of bland, observational jokes that I’m not really interested in, I can do sort of a “hahaha, I hear you,” kind of thing that lets me be a participant without having to do any of the heavy lifting of coming up with a clever response. It’s hard to describe in writing because it sort of sounds like I’m being sarcastic or dismissive, but really I’m joining in, but in a very passive way, if that makes sense.

  26. CM*

    I’m like this too! Two things:

    First, don’t worry about not being able to participate in the banter. Try to be warm and friendly in your own way. Laugh at their jokes, maybe a notch or two more than you normally would. Make a personal connection besides the banter, so people think of you as somebody who maybe is a bit reserved but is still interested in being part of the group.

    Second, when I moved to a different workplace that had less banter, it was a huge relief! Now I feel like I can just be myself and I don’t really worry about what other people think of me or whether I’m fitting in.

  27. Anonymeuse*

    As always, Alison is dead on. OP, I’ve had similar struggles (although for me it was less joking around and more general small talk that I found frustrating). I work as a lawyer for government and my work is mainly advisory (like in-house counsel, as opposed to going to court) so over time I realized that building relationships is possibly the most important part of my job. Sure I want my legal advice to be sound, but it’s *advice* and ultimately it only helps if people follow it. And as much as I want to be judged first and foremost on my work (as opposed to my sense of humour), people are more likely to trust someone they like or feel like they know.

    Some tips:
    -even if workplace jokes aren’t your thing, try thinking of other ways to show a bit of yourself. I sometimes refer to my past work experience if there’s an example I can give or a way I can use it to show that I understand the other person’s operational concerns.
    -like Alison mentioned, try to view this as serving some workplace function.
    -it really sucks that this is a thing, but particularly if you’re a woman try not to look visibly frustrated. When I’ve had a lot on my plate before, my fallback plan was to look distracted with other work papers or work reading until it was meeting time.
    -personally, I’m a fan of joking about being the fun police or something similar as a way to sort-of go along, but without really going along (as a bonus, it might make you The-person-who’s-cool-and-not-judgy-but-it’s-also-not-fun-to-crack-jokes-with which could get you out of similar joking around in the future!). You have to be really careful about tone if you’re going to try it, and I’d only do it if you already have a good rapport, but if you are/do, you might be able to get away with the occasional “I hate to be the fun police, but mind if we get this meeting rolling? har har har”

  28. MidwestAdmin*

    OP just remember that as much as you want them to like you, they want you to like them. So, if you were joking around, how would you want them to respond? Just smile, laugh, and say something generic with a smile and slow shake of the head like “Woooow” “Oh man!” “You guys” “Geeeez” Even if you aren’t “in” on the joke you can smile at their interaction or laugh, and if it comes up say something like “Wow, not sure what I missed there!” “This must be some story, I’m going to need to hear it” (can add something about after the meeting if you want to get things moving) or “Do I even want to know?” (all said with the same smile and maybe slow shake of the head, tone that conveys a more fun conversation) Whatever you do, as long as you keep in mind that they are wanting people to like them and respond in a way that if you were in their shoes wouldn’t hurt your feelings, you should be just fine. You can just be the happy audience rather than the comedian.

    1. fposte*

      Oh, these are all really good! I was thinking the same thing–that with some kinds of humor you don’t even have to outright laugh–you just have to give off warm signals that you recognize this was humor, and that there’s something performative and bonding about it.

      1. AMPG*

        I should have read farther down before making my comment above – this is what I was trying to describe when I talked about “passive participation.”

    2. smoke tree*

      Yeah, I think cultivating a jokey demeanour is probably a good strategy. Tone and body language can go a long way, so you don’t have to worry about coming up with zingers on the spot or anything like that. This is the approach I tend to use in situations where I don’t really want to let my guard down.

    3. Empty Sky*

      I was trying to think of a way to say something similar. I think you’ve expressed it well. Treat it as a spectator sport for a while, without trying to participate. See if you can learn to appreciate the back and forth once the pressure of feeling expected to join in is removed. Think of it like a tennis match – you can even make appreciative comments if a turn of phrase strikes you as particularly skillful.

      The other thing you might do is learn some generic ‘witty’ deflection responses for the situations where you’re directly invited to participate and can’t figure out how. “X is using clever words on me! I need some clever words to say back. Anyone have any ideas?” (Said with a smile). Or be the ‘straight’ party and offer lines that can easily be misinterpreted or the subject of a joke, but with a bit of a grin or look that shows you know you’re doing it. Then if someone takes you up on it, say “You’re welcome!” or “I thought about saying it differently, but it seemed a shame to deny you the opportunity.” You can even do this if you realize halfway through, just by exaggerating a little when you finish.

      Another useful tactic if you’re new to it is the self-deprecating mea culpa and de-escalation. Never try to defend or rescue a joke if it falls flat, offends someone or makes them uncomfortable. Just apologize gracefully and move on. “Sorry – failed attempt at humor.” “That sounded much better in my head.” “Obviously that one needs more work.”

  29. Yetanotherjennifer*

    OP, your posture might help. Back when my daughter was little there was this anti-bullying advice that recommended kids being teased adopt this cool stance in the moment. It was meant to calm the kid and convey this sort of “your silly teasing can’t reach me” attitude. I have no idea how well it worked in practice, but something similar might help you. Take note of your posture when you’re joking with your husband or friends and try and adopt a version of it when you’re at work around other people joking. To them, you’ll look like you’re participating even if you don’t say a word. And since part of your mood is how you hold yourself, your posture will help you enjoy the banter. You could also echo someone else’s posture.

  30. Scubacat*

    The OP can practice the “Benign Smile of Hathor.”

    As in, a low key and agreeable expression of amusement. I’ve found that it’s not always necessary to toss out witty jokes in the workplace. This is especially true if the humour is not a brand that you express naturally. Acting the role of a pleasant audience is enough participation.

  31. LetterWriter*

    OP here–Alison, thank you for the response and commenters, thank you for the feedback! I love the distinction of cultivating good humor rather than expressly trying to joke with others, and focusing on being the audience rather than the performer. I also love the idea of improv classes! I like the idea of viewing joking as a relationship building function and will read more about that to see if it can help me change my perspective.

    One comment on the question of gender/joking; the jokes themselves are not misogynistic or otherwise exclusive. However, I am a younger woman increasingly in groups of older, higher-on-the-ladder men, and I think my desire to be taken seriously hinders my ability to relax/joke in these settings. I like the idea of viewing joking as a relationship building function and will read more about that to see if it can help me change my perspective.

    1. Adaline B.*

      Ooh this is SO ME. Thank you for asking the question, I’ve been struggling with this one lately. All of my superiors have known each other for 15-20 years so there’s also some deep friendships going on too.

      I’m so excited to read all this advice.


    2. JessicaTate*

      Thanks for clarifying your view on the gender/joking issue. The “teasing” element had my spidey-sense tingling; wondering if this had some dimension of being a frat house vibe. I’m ALL FOR humor in the workplace, and am quick with a joke or one-liner myself. But I am very wary about teasing, because it can be so close to a personal attack. It’s really risky if you don’t KNOW that person and have a boatload of trust and social capital. Teasing can be funny when it comes from a place of true affection. But all too often… it’s from a place of competition or really just seem to be about cutting one another down. Maybe that was actually bonding in locker rooms and frat houses; but it wasn’t that way over on the girls’ side, and it seems risky/inappropriate for the workplace. And this is coming from a chick/broad/dame who is known for her ability “to hang” with the dudes and their humor. [end rant]

      LW – From your clarification, I think Allison’s advice to find a way to naturally smile and laugh along to their jokes naturally is really good (again, assuming the jokes aren’t gross and inappropriate). There very likely is something performative in this joking by these particular men. And being the new woman in the circle who validates that performance may really serve you well, at least with some who thrive on the perceptions of others.

  32. Hope for funny ladies?*

    I’m early in my career and have always had an offbeat sense of humor outside of work. Early on at my first office job when I tried to come out of my shell my then-boss went off on me for being unprofessional. She turned out to be projecting— she had inappropriate boundaries, was emotionally manipulative, and could interpret anything as a statement on her insecurities— but I still ended up feeling like a cruel person. I know now (post-therapy) that I wasn’t the problem, but I’m uncomfortable opening up to coworkers at my current job even though they are reasonable people. It’s slowly improving, but I often think of every remote way what I’m considering saying could possibly offend anyone at all and weigh it against the potential social benefit of saying it. I often end up not saying anything at all, but still try to look like I’m enjoying myself when other people talk. This would be healthy if I had a tendency not to filter myself, but I’ve always tried to be extra conscientious anyway since I’m an anxious person and this has kicked it up several debilitating notches.
    Has anyone else experienced anything like this? I know you can’t really expect to be your full self in the workplace, but how do you balance humanizing yourself at work with being taken seriously, especially as a young woman?

    1. Plague of frogs*

      Just be yourself. Some people will appreciate it, some people will not; some people will take you seriously, some people won’t take you seriously no matter what you do.

  33. PX*

    OP, there’s been lots of good comments on this, but good job on being self aware and recognising this about yourself! Just to add to the general theme, absolutely look at it as a form of relationship building, and while you dont necessarily have to use this method to build relationships with those around you, it can be good to find other ways to do so. Because as Alison says, at the end of the day, thats one of the things you generally want to do to be successful in many jobs.

    Also, give it time! A lot of this doesnt happen over night, so if it takes a few months for you to find your feet and place in this new role and with these people, thats okay.

  34. effazin*

    Oh wow, what an eye-opener! This post, plus the commenter we were directed to from a previous post shed so much light! I’ve never heard of the dichotomy of relationship-oriented vs task-oriented people before. I clearly recognize myself as task-oriented, and thanks to the commentor’s remarks, can finally understand some of the personality conflicts I’ve had. I know that I often strike people as brisk or rude, because I skip social chit-chat. My spouse tells me it is rude not to begin each interaction by asking about the well-being of my colleagues’ families, etc., but I find it hard to remember to start conversation with what seems to me irrelevant chatter about things I have no interest in. (I don’t wish them ill, I just have zero interest in hearing about Susie’s sniffles, or Johnny’s baseball team trophy, when I need to know the location of the file folder with the budget information.) Once a month we have to stay 90 minutes after the end of the day for a mandatory all-hands meeeting. I find those meetings so irritating, as our fearless leaders are, I see now, clearly relationship-oriented. I sit there silently fuming because I resent wasting time on cute stories about their pets and children that they use to ease into the agenda, and wishing they’d just get to the point. I also get hot under the collar when they spend time going around the room to get everyone’s input on an issue, that from past experience I know they are going to make a unilateral decision about. It seems useless to me to ask us how we “feel” about an issue when our viewpoints aren’t going to have any effect on the outcome. I have more than once expressed in private conversations that since they have the responsibility of making the final decision, I would be happier if they would just do what they wanted to do instead of pretending to consult us before doing what they wanted to do anyway. It feels more insulting to be asked and then have the majority’s wishes over-ruled than to be just told in the first place, “This is what is going to happen, suck it up!” I would rather be unheard than ignored, especially if being unheard means I can spend the saved time doing something more important or enjoyable to me. I’ve gotten raised eyebrows from my colleagues because of my habit of bringing mind-numbingly boring paperwork to complete during these meetings, so the time can have at least some productive use. (The meetings are large enough that we are seated classroom style, not around a table, and it is not obvious to everyone that I am doing something other than attending 100% to the meeting, and I do listen carefully, so that I know exactly what is going on and can give input when it is my turn to “share my feelings”. Given their relationship-oriented outlook, I now see that I must be rubbing them the wrong way at least as much as they do me. Hopefully going forward, I will be able to remember that what I see as a waste of time, they need in order to be able to work smoothly with me, and maybe that will result in less stress for all of us.

  35. Fabulous*

    Whoa(!) to the link with Hildi’s comments about Relationship vs. Task-Oriented people. Seriously mind-blowing observation.

    I would say I’m more task-oriented as well. I’ve always found workplace interactions to be somewhat difficult as small-talk doesn’t come naturally to me in the slightest, though I can usually enjoy and appreciate camaraderie in a group setting. It’s when there is a specific task outcome (like on a group project or impending deadline) that I tend to get frustrated as well. Stakes are higher and things need to get done. Or when people IM me to ask a question but don’t just ask it, they need to say hello, etc. first – just get to the freaking point, LOL!

    As for the OP, I don’t have any particular advice or comment except to say Alison is spot on that you probably need to work on your mindset about these interactions. Not only will you be seen as less of a ‘stick in the mud’ it should help you to be able to enjoy the camaraderie as well.

    1. LeRainDrop*

      Yes, Alison, thanks so much for linking back to hildi’s comments and especially the interview you did of her. I really enjoyed reading them!

  36. Argh!*

    I work in the opposite environment: dry, dour, pearl-clutching old ladies (though some are not “old” in reality, just old in spirit) and dorky men (possibly with Aspergers). Sometimes there will be a cynical joke that just makes me sad while others are chuckling.

    In theory, an organization that values diversity should also value diversity of personality types, but I don’t get that vibe here, and they don’t get my jokes.


  37. JessicaTate*

    My only other comment on this situation, which aligns with Allison’s reframing advice, is to view yourself as a bit of an anthropologist. When they’re doing this at the start of a meeting, instead of seeing it as a waste of time, think about what you can learn about each of them — individually and collectively — in the way they interact, what they joke about, how they react. Watch them (and smile and nod and laugh), and look for patterns. It could be really telling, and give you some insight about how to best work with each of them as your professional life progresses. If nothing else, it is a way to mak! this part of the work process a little more task-oriented — you’re doing your field work.

    (There was an early How I Met Your Mother episode that used this as a schtick, but I think there’s actually value in it sometimes.)

  38. Ms. Pear*

    Sorry if I’m repeating what others have said; I’d love to read all the comments but don’t have the time right now.

    OP, now that you’ve been on the job for a while, I’d also encourage you to take a few chances with letting your own brand of humor show. My first job was at a close-knit advertising agency, where the creativity and humor ran wild. I felt very out of my element and was pretty intimidated. So I did my job to the best of my ability, determined that if I didn’t always “fit in,” at least they couldn’t say I didn’t do my job well.

    I don’t even remember exactly how it happened, but one day there were a couple of creatives gathered around the printer and I happened to be there as well. They were giving each other a hard time, and a somewhat sarcastic comment that I normally never would have made at work just popped out of my mouth. At first, I was horrified — what would they think?! After a moment of shocked silence, they let out these huge guffaws and commented on how they couldn’t believe Miss Prim and Proper would make such a comment. But they did it in a nice way, and they called other people over to say, “Hey, did you hear what Miss Pear just said to Franklin?” On one hand, I was totally embarrassed still, but it felt great to be accepted for who I was. From there on out, it was much easier to let go a little bit. It will never be in my nature to be loud and back-slappy at work, but I’ve found ways to let my own brand of humor show.

    In my experience, you’re right — showing some humor *does* make you part of the group in a more cohesive way. So maybe just relax a little bit, let them enjoy that time, and let your own humor shine through every now and again.

  39. Decibel*

    I am also not terribly funny, but I’ve dealt with it by embracing it in a deadpan way. “I’m not funny.” “Since I have no sense of humor, I stay out of the fray” (when declining prank participation). So I’ve turned my lack of joking into a joke itself, while still actually not doing much banter but, as Allison says, smiling some. It seems to work, and then i have a persona that’s part of office in-jokes.

  40. Mad Baggins*

    OP, I’m in your boat too! There is a lot of really great advice here that I’m going to read (including the interview with hildi) but I just wanted to add, that one thing I noticed as I was sitting in a meeting that seemed to go on and on forever as people built relationships and rapport, is that I was feeling a lot of resentment not just at the difference in communication style, but at other aspects of the job that I was projecting onto this meeting.

    After reading about relationship vs. task orientation, I’m going to try to parse a value/new viewpoint out of my experience.

    “Why do they keep interrupting people to make jokes?”= frustration at a lack of accommodation for other cultures/non-native speakers in general company communication ->Maybe they were trying to build rapport with these people in the way they knew how. How can I support this goal successfully?

    “Why does everyone have to praise each other so much?”= disgust that we are handing out accolades when the purpose of the meeting is to discuss real communication problems in the department ->Maybe this is how they are trying to bridge those communication gaps. How can I encourage this?

    “Why are we wasting so much time on small talk when we have work to do? Can’t we do this after work?”= frustration at spending time on team-building when we need more information about each other to make business decisions ->Maybe this is how they are gathering information and paving the way to make those decisions. How can I take advantage of this?

    I still think there is a cultural/communication disconnect there, but it has been a helpful exercise for me to identify the results/effects of relationship building in order to feel less resentment and impatience.

  41. Qwerty*

    Absolutely agree with all the commenters who view banter as relationship building. I love the work of the Psychologist John Gottman, who says that because negative interactions carry 5 times the weight of positive ones, we need to maintain a “positive emotional bank account” in our relationships with people to be able to handle negative situations more easily. Most often we think about this with our partners, but it’s absolutely true with coworkers as well. I’ll often make more of an effort to have lighthearted interactions with coworkers who bug me because that way when they do bug me, I’ve got a better rapport to address it with them constructively.

  42. Courtney Blake*

    This is SO good, and SO me. I’m a very task-oriented person – which I JUST LEARNED the name to after reading your article and “interview with an incredibly diplomatic person … or how to agreeably disagree” – and at times it’s been challenging to collaborate with the more creative types in my office because they’re all about relationship building, and I’m always like, “ain’t nobody got time for that! There’s work to be done, y’all!” I see them talking and joking, and constantly think to myself, dang, how do they ever get any work done?! But it makes sense to me now. Thank you!!!!

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