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Can Women Be Funny at Work?

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The article 'A man and a woman walk into an office...' in last week's Stylist investigates why women aren't as comfortable as men with using humour in the workplace while office 'banter' comes naturally to men.

According to a study of male female differences in workplace humour published in the International Journal of Humor Research: "humour is much less a part of the female's communicative patterns" but it's my personal view that all the while the men are busy bantering with each other they are missing out on some of the richest, funniest and, dare I say, filthiest observational comedy that comes naturally to women. The men don't get a look in! Humour is very definitely part of a women's method of communicating but we do it our way!

During a workshop that I ran last year at the Edinburgh Fringe, one of our participants, journalist Ashley Davis who writes for The Scotsman, discovered a rich seam of material based upon her workplace observations. They had clearly been simmering for some time. She worked in a busy newspaper office and sat strategically placed to watch her male colleagues go to and from the toilets. I'm not sure that a man in the same situation would have seen the equivalent scenario as material for a comedy set - but then women don't spend as much time in the loo, or take their computer in with them, or emerge as if they've given birth to a football smiling in self-satisfaction! Comedy is about close observation and women have always been good at the detail. Listen to women talking and you'll soon get the picture.

So - why are women reticent to exploit this talent for humour in the workplace? They are not genetically disposed to dominate in mixed sex groups, so humour is not a recognised part of the charm offensive. Don't get me wrong, there are plenty of dominant women who can now disprove this theory, but they use a different set of leadership tactics.

Now that humour is a shared experience with stand-up entertainment, live and virtual, a staple of modern life and more women getting to share the stage with the men, we're finally being let in on the joke. Whereas we've had to learn to play the boys' game, they are missing out on some of the innuendo and intuitive humour that takes place between female colleagues. We can share a joke with the raise of an eyebrow; it doesn't always have to be said out loud.

My main concern is that we could get sucked into a training vortex, churning out a trail of sharp shooting one liner merchants ready for a comedic assault on the boardrooms of tomorrow. Male or female - this is not a good look. The secret of good stand up is about being yourself, even an enhanced version or a caricature, and this training taken in context can really help to improve your confidence and communication skills.

I work with men and women separately because when sexual politics enter the mix, behaviour changes. As a single sex group you are more honest with each other. Women are generally very supportive of each other when there are no men in the room to impress. However, if an alpha female is allowed to dominate that group, she has a powerful hold over them, intimidating the rest of them into submission. As workshop leader I am forced to challenge her authority and this is where humour can build bridges. Even if the dominant female won't play, it will help the rest of the group to bond and grow stronger through exploring humour together and this mutual support is very important for a team.

Men like to 'perform' to each other hence stand up is genetic! Yet, they talk at each other rather than communicating and listening. Banter is like artillery fire getting the battle going, and once the big guns are out, there's very little margin for negotiation. A good tactical leader amongst men is often part of the pack and might not immediately assert his authority. He'll play the game, join in and lead from within the group.

As women we can really learn from this of sexually exclusive behaviour. Learn to pass the ball and not hold on to it and humour helps you with this skill. Men on the other hand need to listen more to what women are saying to each other and they will begin to understand how we really think!

Caitlin Moran in her best-selling book, How to Be a Woman states that "Women are fundamentally unsuited to putting their head over the parapet and competing on the same terms as men. They just can't handle the big boy stuff. They simply need to stop trying." She goes on to say that the effort involved in competing with men makes women miserable. Whether or not you agree with Caitlin, whose bawdy, Wife of Bath style of comic writing makes even Russell Brand look coy, there is still a feminine propensity towards self-deprecation and lack of esteem that makes women hold back on the humour.

Yet as more and more women get into stand up men are provided with a valuable insight into our take on life. We can be really useful tacticians on the team with a valuable and intuitive voice. A humorous anecdote will often be laced with wisdom - women don't waste time dreaming up one-liners just to bring attention to themselves in the workplace. We've got better things to do!

See the Stylist's tips on how to be funny at work.

For more about Funny Women's Stand Up to Stand Out workshops visit: http://www.funnywomen.com/workshops.php

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