PhD Progress & Thoughts

The Importance of a Sense of Humour

The last two weeks have been…difficult.

Ruminating, pacing, scream-into-a-pillow difficult. Not because of any hardship per se, but because of a total stoppage of communication, and the sensation that I’m peripheral to the goals of other people. You know the times when a borderline passive-aggressive email chain could be quickly solved by a relaxed phone call?
Yeah. Those kinds of weeks.

But I know it’s not my sense of humour that needs to be reinvigorated. No…some of the people I’m working with lately have a distinct vibe of ‘needs a helium balloon’. Some weeks it’s tolerable – their short responses, lack of a smile, and instant escalation of minor inconveniences can be managed in small doses – but the last fortnight have illustrated that sometimes that attitude needs to walk.

Sure, these people probably have a lot on their plate. I understand that much. And of course, it’s not appropriate to be cracking jokes at all hours of the professional day, but after interacting with a genuine cohort of high-intensity professionals in literal life-or-death, poverty-changing situations… I’ve found that it is possible. It is possible to laugh at something that makes no sense. It is okay to do a double take and ask ‘wait, what?’, and it is perfectly fine to duck your head into my work space and ask to chat about something.

So what’s the deal with sense of humour, and why the heck is it so important?

Well, dear readers, a sense of humour is a key part of the Australian workplace, and helps establish how approachable you are as a professional. If I stomped around with murder in my eyes and a hairline trigger for stress, nobody would ask to have coffee with me and discuss their day. Nobody would send me a random email asking for clarification on a research project, and nobody would feel brave enough to knock on my office door during the day.
Approachable people also sometimes display their approach-ability through humour.


I have personal experience to cite that memes like this improve the working environment. 

When I talk about humour, I’m not talking about cracking jokes and pranking your coworkers. I’m talking about looking at a failed project, that couldn’t be helped, and shrugging it off as a new opportunity to learn. I’m talking about a rude phone call that you can laugh about after the other person has gone. Administration taking a long time on some paperwork, a student accidentally sending a drunk email, traffic delaying your commute, the grocery store not stocking your usual items…the list goes on. A person with ‘good humour’ can approach these minor inconveniences with a smile, or a joke. Knowing when it’s reasonable to get upset, and when excusing minor faux pas is the best approach, is important. So is understanding that human error may be just that, and how to give gentle feedback so that it doesn’t occur in the future. It’s a personality trait, and a positive one.

There are many, many professionals I have interacted with over the last fortnight that fail to exhibit a basic sense of humour. Managers who, after declining to participate in a study, don’t respond to my farewell of ‘have a great day!’ because they’ve slammed the phone into the receiver. Fellow customers at the grocery store who glare at me when I say ‘hello again!’ as we bump into the third consecutive aisle. Dental assistants who raise their eyebrows at you trying to scrape the taste of fluoride from your tongue with a paper towel. The list goes on, and on.

Like I said. I don’t know half these people or the personal dramas that occur in their lives, but over the last fortnight I’ve noticed a distinct absence of a good nature. Where’s the snort of amusement as I attempt to cram a weeks’ worth of shopping into my cloth satchel because I forgot my re-useable grocery bag? I’m doing my best to help the environment here, and making myself look like an idiot. The least an onlooker can do is to entertain my self-image as a silly Gen-Y with a laugh.

Once or twice a week, I can usually get by with a snappy person in my life. A fellow driver on the freeway flipping me the middle finger because I followed merging laws and they didn’t; a customer at the hair salon in front of me deciding on a ‘full makeover’ when my turn is next and it’s a no-bookings establishment. I’ve had grannies stare at me trying to figure if my week-long-unwashed-hair-look is from parenthood, or laziness. I’ve had a cashier walk away from me mid-sentence because she wanted to check her phone. I’ve been forgotten by a doctor, left on hold for 45 minutes, been told by a government agency to provide multiple, certified copies of identity documents in the space of a month. There’s a certain amount that a friendly retail-trained smile can buffer, but there comes a point where even the sunniest of dispositions is left disheartened and exhausted.

How do you live, five days a week, in a workplace like that? No jokes, no smiles, no friendly greetings or ‘benefit of the doubt’ assumptions to bolster the fact that all of your mistakes were well-meaning? I’m no surgeon; nobody is going to die if I don’t have all the answers or if I need to ask my supervisors for clarification. Despite what society tells us, we all actually have a few extra seconds to spare for the purpose of making the job a little easier with a sprinkle of compassion and a sense of humour. So take the time! I’ll wait.




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