Funny girl: On humor, success, and gender

Recently, I played a game called Quiplash for the first time with a group of friends over a long cabin weekend. Over multiple rounds, the game presents prompts and asks two participants to each fill in a response with the goal of being as funny as possible. Then the rest of the participants vote on which response was best, with the submitter’s identity importantly remaining anonymous. After several rounds, a winner is declared based on who secured the most votes for their responses. We played several games, and I was shocked to win three times, more than any other individual, and almost consistently placed in in the top three.

Why was I shocked? This inconsequential game caused more self-reflection than I thought it might. I realized that I don’t think of myself as primarily funny. I definitely am weird, maybe goofy, but I don’t crack jokes unless I am in a very comfortable social setting (or tipsy). Thinking about this more I remembered that when I was younger, I was funny. I was someone who made my friends laugh and was one of the louder ones in my group of friends. But since becoming an adult, required to enter the professional realm, and, at one point, to date with the aim of finding a partner, I’ve begun to tread cautiously. I hadn’t even fully realized I was doing this until this recent cabin weekend. At some point, “funny” stopped being an adjective I used to describe myself. At some point, I’d begun to worry more about being sensitive, not offending anyone, and whether people liked me.

Cool story, Madeline. But this is a professional blog. Does humor matter in a professional setting? A cursory Google search points to yes - funny people are on average smarter and more successful. Crucially, this is only true of humor that lands. Hostile, negative, and offensive jokes are, no surprise, bad for your career. Yet when it is successful, according to this article, “humor boosts both personal productivity and group effectiveness.”

And yet humor as a positive trait is still often tied to masculinity. “Funny” is often accompanied by “guy,” “class clown” invariably brings a silly young man to mind, and I’m willing to bet that if you think about those cracking the loudest jokes amongst your own friend group they are likely men.

Since getting married, I’m more often personally confronted by social gender differences, just by nature of socializing in the company of my husband, Josh. Josh is hilarious. He blurts out whatever funny thought crosses his mind in social situations regardless of how well he knows his audience, is extremely quick with puns and portmanteaus, and is agreeable and gregarious. It’s not that this never flops - sometimes he’ll meet a person who finds him loud or annoying. But unlike me, he actually doesn’t care about the few people he can’t win over.

The Quiplash revelation helped me realize a pattern and brought to mind other evidence that I’ve been hiding part of myself from many of my professional and personal associates. I attended a wedding of a professional colleague with Josh. Another colleague was there, and after bantering with both of us she told me she thought maybe she had underestimated me - if I was able to keep up with a husband like that I must be less buttoned up than she’d thought. I also remembered all the times in social settings when I’d lean over and say something funny and apropos to Josh, who would gleefully repeat the exact same thing, loudly, to the whole group to peals of laughter. (I told him I was annoyed that he was taking public credit. He claimed it was merely “joke syndication” but now always adds “Listen to what Madeline just said…” prior to sharing.)

Does being funny alone get you promotions? No, but I think being funny correlates strongly with confidence. And confidence is more often equated with leadership potential when associated with men. According to this Harvard Business Review article, men and women feel similar levels of confidence, but men appear more confident to others. Unfortunately, appearance of confidence is more important than actual confidence in shaping perceived capabilities. My husband is only one man and I am only one woman, and we have completely different personalities. But I find myself wondering if at least some part of his confidence is shaped by subtly constructed gender expectations that follow us our whole lives. I’m quite sure his quick humor and his confidence are inextricably bound.

For my part, I was a good child of the 90’s girl power movement, long coached to never hide my Hermione-like tendencies or intellect, but I actually never realized that humor on a woman can be similarly threatening in both professional and social settings. Ultimately, being funny or making a joke is a risk. And risks are more easily borne by (white) men. A biting joke from a woman might be taken as b*tchy or cold, but might provoke laughs when a man says the same thing (the scamp!)

So in response to the age-old question of whether men are funnier than women, I’ll say this: not really. But men might feel more confident letting the world see their humor and don’t get social points deducted when they do. Mused Christopher Hitchens in Vanity Fair, “Precisely because humor is a sign of intelligence . . . it could be that in some way men do not want women to be funny. They want them as an audience, not as rivals.”

Obscuring your intelligence is damaging. Imposter syndrome and lack of confidence is damaging. And potentially so too is hiding your sense of humor. I personally wasn’t even conscious of the fact that I was doing this. I also never fully realized how humor, confidence, intelligence, and success might be tied together. Now that I’m making these connections, I will strive to better be myself, even in professional settings. It might be a long road to dismantle the persona I’ve built up, but I hope I, and women collectively, will work on this, that men will work towards feeling less threatened by women who are funny, and that the many hilarious women in hiding can soon start to emerge.

Image credit: The original funny girl, Fanny Brice Image is in the public domain and available on wikimedia commons

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