This Lost Art Could Get You That Second Interview (or Promotion), According to Harvard

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April 14, 2024 at 5:29PM UTC
While an interview is a serious opportunity, there’s a lost art in using humor to enliven the situation and put yourself ahead of the competition. A study from the Harvard Business Review uncovered that executives with a track record of exceptional performance were twice as likely to use humor in the workplace. So how does one portray this “star quality” as early as that first interview?

Wait, you haven’t been making jokes in interviews?

As it turns out, certain demographics have been joshing around with interviewers for longer than others. A linguistics researcher from Northern Arizona University determined that, as early as 1994, “interviewees were found to talk more if they were older and more educated.” They were also found to feel more comfortable letting loose and cracking some jokes if they were “applying for literate jobs with higher salaries,” such as upper-level positions that require either a measure of verbal or written skills.
Additionally, job interviews at different salary levels were determined to vary tremendously from one another in terms of tone, and while lower-level interviews concerned the nuts and bolts of the job at hand, upper-level interviews seemed to be more conversational. Ultimately, successful interviews across the board involved more “vocabulary variety and laughter.”

The wrong kind of humor

So, now that you’re in on the secret, you want to harness the hidden power of jokes in an interview. There are obvious comments one shouldn’t make, as Randstad reports, like “racist, sexist, offensive, mean ‘jokes’.” But there are other bits of humor that might be harming more than they’re helping. It comes down to timing and intent, making a joke at the right time, and never at someone else’s expense. If you decide to make a joke at your own expense, however, just be careful about how it’ll come off.
A study from the Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes in 2019 reports that “humor reduces the perceived veracity of proximal statements.” This is just a very verbose way of saying that, sometimes, humor makes your stories less believable, because if someone assumes you’re joking about one portion of your story, they may assume that your entire response was a comedic bit.
In the same way, the study continues that “humor diminishes the perceived veracity of negative disclosures,” meaning things you tell interviewers that are negative bits of information. For instance, if you tell an employer that you’re bad at spreadsheets, they’ll believe you more if you don’t make a pun about bedding afterward. This could be used to your advantage if you‘re looking to shield employers from the gaps in your resume or your skillset, but not communicating well can also be a problem, unless you’re applying for the job of class clown.
The book The Psychology of Humor at Work has some more specific examples of humor gone wrong. In one particular study, interviews were conducted regarding various situations involving workplace humor, and the kinds of humor that allowed them to connect to upper-level leadership.
One employee was referred to as “sarcastic,” and her humor was “always at someone else’s expense.” Another seemed clueless and often made inappropriate and outdated comments. “He’s the kind of person who would make jokes, and everybody was just kind of quiet afterward,” the participant said. “It’s like, I can’t believe he just said that…he was just clueless, really crude in his jokes.”

The right kind of humor

The same study in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes points to ways that humor can help one’s interviewing abilities as well. While humor might make some of your claims less believable, it can also soften the blows of tough information and can serve as a “powerful impression management tool” if you’re looking to portray a certain image in the interview.
As mentioned, the research shows that “adding humor to negative disclosures boosts perceptions of warmth and competence,” so while your recruiter may not believe that you’re really bad at spreadsheets, they’ll see you as more personable for humbling yourself in the first place.
The Psychology of Humor at Work also notes that humor can function as stress-relief, and it can serve as a “coping mechanism to relieve the tension of the interview process.” If you’re looking to control how nervous you seem to an interviewer, humor is a great way to clear the air, and instill a measure of confidence that you may not feel deep down.

The humor of a leader

Additionally, especially when interviewing for higher-level positions, humor indicates that you’ll be a more effective leader. Humorous leaders are proven to “engender positive employee attitudes,” and are often “viewed as more effective overall by those they oversee.” Research in the field of humor in the workplace tends to “unanimously agree that humor is a valuable interpersonal skill for leaders.”
As for examples of how a true leader’s humor should look in an interview, the book’s study included some positive impressions from participants as well as some negative ones.
“He is a pretty serious guy,” one participant says about their boss, “but every now and then he just breaks out with something that’s really funny. It just catches you off guard, and the whole room laughs.” Another participant refers to their boss’ humor as “quick,” “funny,” “gregarious,” and “frequent… she came up with interesting twists.”
— Sara London

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This article originally appeared on Ladders

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