Humor and Administration: A Serious Inquiry into Unofficial Organizational Communication

By Yarwood, Dean L. | Public Administration Review, January-February 1995 | Go to article overview

Humor and Administration: A Serious Inquiry into Unofficial Organizational Communication


Yarwood, Dean L., Public Administration Review


This article has as its focus a discussion of administrative humor. Although the topic suggests rib ticklers and knee slappers, in fact humor can be serious communication. Managers are taught about several aspects of their work such as personnel administration, budgeting, strategic planning, TQM, and so on. They may even have insights regarding informal groups that inhabit formal organizations. A type of activity that takes place at the informal level of most any organization, however, is likely to elude the typical manager but is nonetheless important to the functioning of the organization. I am referring to the humor of employees and managers of the organization. This type of communication can be supportive of the organization and its purposes or it can be detrimental. It can run the gamut from the cute, to the ridiculous, to communication which is downright offensive. It is not uncommon for humor to run afoul of emerging norms of multiculturalism. Sometimes humor is widely shared and at other times it is closely guarded. Indeed, the path taken by a humorous story or insight may even define the pammues of odd interaction within an organization.

If it is clear that humor is something that ought to be of interest to a typical public manager of a stress-filled modern agency, it may still not be clear what should be made of it. The meaning humor carries is often not readily apparent. Harvy Mindess quotes the comedian, Stanley Myron Handelman, "Life is like an onion. The outer layers are a joke, and when you peel them away, there's another joke underneath. And underneath that yet another joke, and underneath that yet another. When you get to the core of the onion, however, it's no joke" (Mindess, 1987; p. 92). So it is with humor. Here we will discuss some different types of administrative humor, the functions of such humor, and some of the patterns it can take in an organization.

Incongruity Humor

A prominent type of administrative humor falls into the category of incongruity humor, which is characterized by irony and contradiction.(1) Common concerns viewed from novel perspectives can bring humorous results; seemingly different Man ad Nwak mx seen to have some absurd and provocative commonalities when they are juxtaposed. Often humor comes from placing meanings from different systems or paradigms into proximity. For the French philosopher Henri Bergson, influenced by his antipathy toward the mechanization of thought and behavior in the industrial period, humor resulted from the contrast between the natural and the mechanical worlds or as he put it, when something mechanical is "encrusted on the living." "The attitudes, gestures, and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as they remind us of a mere machine" (Bergson, 1956; pp. 84, 79). Arthur Koesder in The Act of Creation? referred to incongruity humor as "bisociation" (Koestler, 1964; pp. 35-36). Humor is the result of merging or the "bisociation" of different matrices of thought. Koestler employs the term "matrix" to mean "any ability, habit, or skill any pattern of ordered behaviour governed by a `code' of fixed rules" (p. 38). Similarly, William Fry finds much humor in paradoxes which he defines as "a breakdown in our logical system." He sees an increase in paradoxes during periods of great social change, when contrasts between the old and new stand in sharp refief (Fry, 1987; pp. 42-50).

In public administration, much humor has been found in the paradigm differences between traditional society and the values of the administrative state. In the former, democracy, equality, trust (a persotis word is a bond, a hand shake seals a deal), individual dignity, generalized competence, and common sense are dominant values. In the latter, stress is placed on the formalization of relationships, hierarchy, authority, specialization, rules, routines, efficiency, and accountability. Humor results when the rules and assumptions of one system are brought to bear on the other. …

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