Having the Last Laugh
The use of humour in
international business meetings
to be presented by the University of Leicester reveals that humour can play a
key role in international business meetings - and can influence the power-play
study by Dr Pamela Rogerson-Revell, of the University's School of Education, is
to be presented at a seminar on Wednesday, May 28.
finds that humour is an important linguistic resource which can be used to
include and exclude people - to the extent that members at a meeting can subvert
the meeting and even usurp the power of the Chair.
study of international business meetings attended by managers of a large
international organisation provides a picture of what might happen behind closed
boardroom doors at international conglomerates. Her findings suggest that in the
meetings she studied:
· Humour is commonly prevalent in business meetings and can be used, along with other strategies, to assert power or influence.
native English speakers, particularly western males, appear to use humour to
assert their superiority over others
Humour facilitates the process
by which members of a meeting collude with one another.
is used by two or more members in a
meeting to express group solidarity
Rogerson-Revell said: "An interesting and unexpected outcome of the
investigation was that one commonly recurring interactive strategy in meetings
was the use of humour.
findings of the study show that humour is present in all meetings but the
frequency and tone of the humour varies with the style of the meetings. Indeed
shifts in style between formality and informality are a common feature of the
meetings and humour appears to be one of several linguistic devices which
cluster together to mark these shifts towards greater informality. It appears that these shifts and the humour
within them are used strategically to show solidarity and power, particularly by
the dominant 'in-group' of western, male participants.
meetings, power relationships are not overtly dynamic: the designated chair and
participants have conventionalised rights and functions. It is consequently easy
to conclude that the distribution of power, status and roles, are predetermined
and static, rather than looking at
the strategic use of language to create, maintain or shift relations between
in many types of interactions, including meetings, participants not only
collaborate but also collude and even compete with each other in order to get
things done.Humour is one of several interactive strategies which occur
repeatedly throughout the meetings and belongs to a cluster of linguistic
devices which appear to be used strategically to mark solidarity and/or
the one hand, these features can be used to mark hierarchical relationships of
dominance and submission and on the other, to show horizontal relationships of
influence through collusion or solidarity among interactants who share group
affiliation or identity.
instance, the use of humour, along with other linguistic devices such as
overlaps and exaggeration, by a group of
male, high ranking, native English speakers may be seen by non-users
as negative face strategies, signalling hierarchical superiority,
exclusion or dominance. On the other hand, the same features may be perceived by
'in-group' users as bonding devices, reinforcing the group's solidarity and
positive face by 'mirroring' each other's behaviour.
seems that when interactive strategies, such as humour, are shared by several
participants in a meeting, one interactive style will tend to dominate, to the
advantage of 'in-group' users and the detriment of other 'non-users', in other
words, it can be used exclusively and inclusively.
is largely associated with the dominant speakers in each meeting, the majority
of whom are western male managers.
there are many ways of interpreting the stylistic variations, including the use
of humour, in these meetings: for instance one person's
'bullying' might be interpreted by someone else as 'good-natured
bantering'. However, what does seem clear is that there are considerable
differences in the use of humour both between meetings and between some of the
participants within meetings and that they appear to relate in part to the
underlying interactive strategies which are used differently by different
speakers. How individuals use such strategies is
dependent on what they consider to be appropriate interactive
behaviour. This in turn seems to
relate to the particular cultural or discourse community that an individual
belongs to and the underlying
stylistic conventions which prevail within that discourse system."
Rogerson-Revell says her findings are indicative rather than definitive as the
research sample was small and confined to a series of meetings of one
international organisation in one country. She concludes:
difficulty of getting heard in workplace interactions, such as meetings, can be
experienced by any individuals who are less tenacious about standing their own
ground, do not speak as 'powerfully' or do not begin with a high level of
credibility, whether as a result of
regional, ethnic, status or gender style differences.
suggest that the ability to shift style, whether through the use of humour or
other interactive strategies, to be able to select the appropriate stylistic
conventions to move across discourse group boundaries, is a potentially powerful
linguistic skill. Furthermore, developing a passive understanding of a range of
interactive strategies, including the use of humour, would also be advantageous,
to increase awareness and tolerance of other people's 'ways of speaking',
especially in intercultural settings where a particular interactive mix may
result in one individual's or group's style becoming more influential than
School of Education
Seminar: Humour in Intercultural Business Meetings. Dr Pamela Rogerson-Revell,
School of Education. 5.30pm. EDG001, Citizenship Centre, 6 University Road.
Entrance is free. For further information or to reserve a place contact 0116 252
5794, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Rogerson-Revell is available on 0116 252 5750
This document has been approved by the head of department or section.