Academic journal article SA Journal of Industrial Psychology

Humour as Defence against the Anxiety Manifesting in Diversity Experiences

Academic journal article SA Journal of Industrial Psychology

Humour as Defence against the Anxiety Manifesting in Diversity Experiences

Article excerpt

Introduction

The use of humour in diversity contexts is often defended as breaking the ice because the laughter relieves tension and participants feel more at ease. The question is whether everyone feels more at ease - even the person(s) at whose expense the joke was made? In one of the case studies discussed in this study, the statement was made, 'we have made so much progress with diversity that we can now openly joke about our differences.' It could be argued that this is not progress, but a (unconscious) defence against the anxiety provoking work with the real deep-seated stereotypes and prejudices that underlie the joke. What is really below the 'racist joke', the 'blonde joke', the 'gay joke' and the 'gender joke'?

The global human rights drive has led to the emancipation of previously oppressed race, gender, religious and sexual orientation groups. This, together with the post-apartheid era in South Africa, has necessitated ongoing diversity interventions in organisations to enable performance in the face of the diversity challenge (Coetzee, 2007). The challenge is to create unity in contexts in which people from different identity groups such as race, gender, generation or sexual orientation are expected to work together in heterogeneous teams (Cilliers, 2007). This is amplified in South African work groups because employees come from a vast array of cultural backgrounds and religions (Maier, 2002), have different dietary laws, dress codes and cultural taboos (Elion & Strieman, 2002), and they are also economically split between very rich and very poor (Chasing the rainbow, 2006). Employees often carry complex unresolved emotions such as anger and guilt from the apartheid era (Booysen, 2005; Pretorius, 2003). Coetzee (2007) developed and tested the face validity of the Community Building Model (CBM) for diversity consultation by means of which the conscious and unconscious interpersonal and intergroup dynamics occurring in diverse organisational settings can be explored. Humour was one of the diversity themes in Coetzee's (2007) work.

The chosen research paradigm and theory, and systems psychodynamics is based on psychoanalysis, systems theory and object relations theory (Cilliers & Koortzen, 1996). As a consulting stance, systems psychodynamics refers to the notion of group-aswhole which becomes the unit of organisational analysis (Stokes, 1994; Thelen, 1998). This thinking was linked to systems theory with its focus on relatedness and relationship issues between systems with the focus on the reciprocity, recursion and shared responsibility in a dynamic manner (Becvar & Becvar, 2000). An organisation is conceptualised as an open system in exchange with its environment, consisting of various physical and psychological sub-systems, the latter being influenced by phenomena such as individual behaviour, status and role relationships, group dynamics, beliefs, values, expectations, anxieties and defence mechanisms (Stapley, 2006). The object relations theory focuses on the need of human objects to be attached, related and connected to other objects (Czander, 1993). Individuals develop the psychological capacity to relate to external (real) and internal (fantasy) objects including people, organisations, groups, ideas, and symbols (Cashdan, 1988). The worker enters the work situation with unfulfilled unconscious attachment needs and fantasies (Pick, 1992). Because the work group is not the family and does not fulfil those needs, the individual experiences conflict and frustration (Czander, 1993). The resulting anxiety may mobilise regression to infantile coping defences such as paranoid-schizoid behaviour, implying the splitting off of feelings into differentiated elements such as good and bad, and projection of the bad feelings onto others (Klein, 1997).

Le Bon theorised that a person becomes influenced when joining a group and will often act on the will of the group (Fraher, 2004). The behaviour of a group member may therefore be either the expression of own needs, or the needs of the group (Sandigo, 1991). …

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