University of Leicester eBulletin

Having the Last Laugh

May 2003
No 145

The use of humour in international business meetings

Research 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 within meetings.

A study by Dr Pamela Rogerson-Revell, of the University's School of Education, is to be presented at a seminar on Wednesday, May 28.

She 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.

Her 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.

      Some 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.

      Humour is used by two or more members in  a meeting to express group solidarity .

Dr 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.

"The 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.

"In 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 interactants.

"Nevertheless, 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 power/influence.

"On 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.

"For 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. 

"It 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.

"Humour is largely associated with the dominant speakers in each meeting, the majority of whom are western male managers.

"Obviously, 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."

Dr 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:

"The 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.

"I 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 another's."

        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


Dr Rogerson-Revell is available on 0116 252 5750

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