The correlation between seriousness and ability

November 17, 2011

Don Draper, the role model for serious businesspeople and sepia-lovers everywhere.

I’ve attended hundreds of sales pitches and client meetings, nearly always as a supplier to a larger organisation. On a few occasions in my early career I recall being faintly berated by colleagues for my behaviour. Not for doing anything aggressive, derogatory or suggestive, but for humorous remarks that were deemed inappropriate – just by the nature of them being a light-hearted quip said in an otherwise serious situation.

With relatively few exceptions, big businesses lack humour. Even smaller web startups tend to take themselves very seriously, and some of the most prominent technology journalists dedicate far too much of their time to personal vendettas and angry rants.

Why is it that our culture somehow associates fun and humour with a lack of professionalism, whereas if you’re solemn, loud and angry you’re taken seriously?

Many of my heroes are known for their wit: Stephen Fry, Al Franken, Jon Stewart, Chris Morris, Richard Feynman, Richard Curtis and Mark Thomas. Though, to be fair, they do all dodge the difficult issues of making profits and running businesses, and instead tackle easy targets like government corruption, the destruction of our ecosystem, corporate murder, third world poverty and the mechanics of our universe, to name but a few trivial matters.

These intellectual professionals demonstrate how humour can be used not to belittle an issue, but to clarify and amplify arguments, and increase the impact of their case. Research confirms [e.g. 1, 2] that humour helps people to remember things.

When I first started to learn the Ruby programming language, I stumbled upon Why’s (Poignant) Guide to Ruby. What a breath of fresh air it is, in the otherwise stodgy environment of technical programming guides, full of irreverence and whimsical cartoons. The author, why the lucky stiff, has/had a rare knack for mixing instruction and art to produce charming, memorable material. If you don’t already know about __why, you can read about his legacy at Smashing Magazine, John Resig and Wikipedia.

There is a time and place for humour, of course.

Most web app interfaces are purely functional and should be as transparent as possible, not interrupting a user’s flow with jokes and confusing pun-laden labels. But when we get a chance to communicate through other channels, whether in-person, through emails and blogs or instructional guides, humour should be considered a useful and professional tool that can be judiciously applied to relevant situations, not avoided at all costs.

And on that note, I’ll leave you with an always-excellent XKCD cartoon:

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One Response to “ The correlation between seriousness and ability ”

  1. Alex on December 7, 2011 at 11:49 am

    I’ve always found humour goes down well in a meeting when said at the right time. It usually just relaxes everyone. Then again I work in a creative sector where you’ve got to be open to ideas and being generally uptight doesn’t help.

    If you like Chris Morris and the Day Today you may like this:

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