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Veil of Benign Amusement March 31, 2016

Posted by Sneha Khilay - Blue Tulip Training in Uncategorized.

With an increasing emphasis on the value of inclusive language in the workplace, there is now an inherent realisation that the language we use could be scrutinised. We are more mindful of how we express ourselves aware that we are monitored by others, especially by those who could be classed as the ‘language police’ who are genuinely looking out for offensive content to raise awareness of alternative language and thereby effect change.

At a recent board meeting I attended as an observer, a new member who would work closely with the Board Treasurer was introduced. During the coffee break, one of the board members, on realising that the new member was Jewish, made a comment that the finances would now definitely be in order. The speaker making the comment thought it was entertaining and funny, reflected by a general reaction of laughter from some people.

However one or two people, finding the comment to be inappropriate complained. In response, the speaker described the ‘complainers’ as boring and that they did not have a sense of humour. Others agreed. In effect, a ‘veil of benign amusement’ was placed over those who had raised a concern, even perceiving them as being tiresome. The thought of taking away fun in a situation considered as entertaining created an antagonism towards colleagues who highlighted the comment as a point of concern. These colleagues, found to be too sensitive, raise questions whether they will fit into the team culture of humour.

It is known that the human brain operates in either serious mode or humorous mode. Whilst in serious mode, information is interpreted logically and rationally. In humorous mode, characterised by the positive emotion of amusement and the tendency to laugh,  rationality is suspended in the name of fun where a relaxed attitude does not process as quickly, whether comments are appropriate or not. Humour attracts attention and admiration, delineates social boundaries which however can cause a divide amongst the listeners between what is acceptable or not. It is recognised that some humorous situations may arouse negative emotions as well as amusement and laughter.

Discriminatory comments, albeit often made in jest shape perception, turning an illusion into reality and thereby creating a culture for the tolerance of hostility and discrimination against particular individuals and groups of people. There is an argument that usually there is no apparent intended malice behind a joke and that there is a need for light hearted satire in the workplace; jokes should therefore be taken in good humour.

However, what is significant about the concept of benign amusement is that it negates the imputed (stereotypical) meaning behind the joke/humour and at times jokes against individuals and groups of people can be a mask for anger and even disdain. Studies have found that making and appreciating, for example, sexist humour is a tacit consent to sexual discrimination in a context where the listener is not dictated by social norms to reject sexism since it is veiled in humour.

It is also worth looking into situations where reactions to jokes are disrespected; there is then a presumption to tell the individuals that they are wrong and that they should/have to find such humour funny. The saying ‘one person’s sense of humour is another person’s insult’ comes to mind. These individuals who genuinely are offended by the nature of the jokes are then told off or laughed at for raising it as a concern.   ‘Don’t laugh at me, don’t get your pleasure from my discomfort’.

To blame or argue is easy, the ability to recognise and reflect on the impact of jokes and banter are signs of awareness and personal growth. As we as a society develop, it is important to acknowledge that people are free to express their choices on what they find acceptable or not. Everyone has the right to be offended by something that is implicitly or explicitly discriminatory. There’s plenty in life and the world to laugh at or over, without violating the single most basic human value, that of acknowledging, respecting and validating people’s differences.

“Humour is the only test of gravity, and gravity of humour; a jest which will not bear serious examination is false wit.” – Aristotle



1. Saluka Saul - April 4, 2016

Absolutely well said! This subject matter is a constant in my professional life! Humour in life is imperative but so too are context and respect for all human beings. People who raise these issues after they occur should NOT be chastised (happens to me all too often)! Indeed it is against the law to victimise anyone who raises any type of equality complaint.
Thank you for raising this poignant issue.

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