Office Play the Banter of the Sexes Goes on from 9 to 5

Article excerpt

OK, hypothetical situation time:

Let's say a female co-worker is talking about returning to work after her maternity leave. A male colleague says, "What are you planning to do, set up a nursery in your office?" Wink-wink, snicker-snicker.

Your reaction to that comment may depend on your gender, of course. But how do you think our pregnant professional should respond to the guy who posed the question?

A. "Don't be rude. I have day care all arranged."

B. "I suppose you think that women belong at home with their babies."

C. "Actually, your office is a little more spacious; I thought I might set up the nursery in there."

Barbara Mackoff, author of "What Mona Lisa Knew," favors C.

Response A means you've "taken the bait and you sound both aggressive and silly," Mackoff writes. Option B is too defensive. However, the third response "satirizes the situation and demonstrates your confidence about returning to work."

And the entire scenario demonstrates the difference between male and female humor.

"Men's humor can be like a Hollywood Friars Club roast - all playful insults and mock-hostile slapstick," Mackoff writes.

Women's humor tends to be more consoling, she says. Rather than goading each other, women tend to "make small comedies out of shared experiences."

In workplaces all across America, women and men are adjusting to each other's humor. Typically, though, women are the ones doing most of the adjusting because they're the ones who read all the self-help books - including those on humor.

To summarize the self-help books: The best way for women to deal with the male approach to humor is to make fun of the situation rather than counterattacking the jokester. Our hypothetical exchange above is a prime example.

Despite our differing humor styles, communications experts say, men and women are laughing at more of the same things.

"Generally speaking, the gap is closing both in response to humor and in the humor itself," says Edgar B. Wycoff, an associate professor of communication at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

Wycoff teaches a course called Humor in Communication. As part of the class, students prepare and deliver comedy routines - and their material is growing more alike.

"The whole world is coming together" through the media and the workplace, Wycoff says. As a result of all this gender mixing, men and women are having more common experiences - including those related to humor.

"It used to be that men used put-down humor, men sparred," Wycoff says. Research showed that women viewed such sparring behavior as hostile. But recent studies indicate that women's attitudes are changing, Wycoff says.

Stand-up comics have noticed the trend toward unisex humor, too. But they say differences definitely remain.

For example, women still don't find degrading humor aimed at them amusing. …