When Humor isn\’t Funny

By Jean Mavrelis - 10.08.2009

Humor can build team camaraderie or destroy it. Many white men have reported in our sessions that today’s politically correct environment has forced them to lose their sense of humor.  It is true that white men bond by teasing – but when that teasing is cross cultural or cross gender, it is a slippery slope.  John McCain learned this the hard way when he joked about an ape raping a woman

Stereotyping of ethnic groups is particularly offensive, whether masked as humor or not, especially when coming from outsiders, regardless of the motive behind them. Some ethnic groups are hit harder by humor than others. Asians will often “feel the pain and not show it”.  One Asian woman told me that a white male colleague said, “You’re not like other Asians”.  She went home and brooded for months about whether that was an insult or not, and if not, what did it mean?  A Chinese man was teased/reprimanded by his boss, as were two Anglo colleagues, about “leaving the coffee room a mess” as they sat eating lunch.  The Chinese employee sat there in shock and pain.  Three months later during his performance review he blurted out, “It wasn’t me who dirtied the coffee area”.  His white male boss didn’t remember the incident.  A Mexican American police officer was “affectionately” nicknamed “beaner” by his colleagues.  He hated it, but didn’t dare say so for fear he would be seen by his white male associates as overly sensitive.

I would like to hear from readers about a time when someone acted like they were joking, but that humor took a great personal toll. I’m especially interested in times when the humor was across lines of ethnicity or gender. Maybe we can all learn from this kind of conversation.