Politeness, power and control: The use of humour in cross-cultural telecommunications

Research output: Chapter in book / Conference proceedingChapter in an edited book (as author)Academic researchpeer-review

11 Citations (Scopus)


Humour serves a variety of functions in discourse. The obvious function is sheer entertainment: people incorporate in their discourse humorous elements - such as jokes, or puns, riddles or funny stories -in order to amuse and entertain. Research on same-sex talk, for example, has found that young male speakers often use 'competitive humour' (current speaker has to outdo previous speaker in telling jokes or narratives which are perceived as funnier), the function of which is to entertain and compete for the upper hand in the group (see Holmes 2006; Ladegaard, forthcoming a). Another obvious function of humour is solidarity; humour is used in a group to maintain a feeling of solidarity among ingroup members and to mark the group off from possible outgroups. This is one of the reasons why humour is so context-bound. Humorous remarks, which are considered hilarious and lead to amusement and laughter in a group, may appear obscure - And not funny at all - To outsiders, because they play on social routines and cultural norms and conventions which are unique for a group. Linstead (1988) argues that the use of humour is complex and paradoxical and reflects many of the difficulties we experience in other areas of social life. It can be seen, for example, as 'a device utilised by individuals for coping with uncertainty, exploring ambiguous situations, releasing tension or distancing unpleasantness' (123). He further argues that, through the many functions it performs, and through the symbolic alignments it makes possible, humour is an intrinsic part of organizational life. In one of the early studies of the use of humour in the workplace, Turner (1973, 43) identified uses of the 'joking mode' in the industrial subcultures he studied as a way to 'test the atmosphere, to disarm accusations of failure or stupidity, and to deliver unpalatable or potentially unpalatable messages with a softened impact' (cited in Linstead 1988, 125). And in a more recent study of the use and functions of humour in the workplace Holmes (2000, 159-60) argues that humour can be an important management strategy. It can be used as 'a way of attenuating or reinforcing power relationships. Humour can be used to reduce inequalities between those of different professional status, alternatively it can be used to emphasize power imbalances, or even to license challenges to status hierarchies.' Research on the use and importance of humour in the workplace has been burgeoning in recent years, and there is ample evidence to show that humour in workplace settings is truly multifunctional. Much of the research demonstrates - from a sociological and/or psychological perspective - The general benefits of using humour in the workplace; it shows that humour, through a variety of functions, serves as a lubricant which makes work processes, intercollegial negotiations, and even production run more smoothly. Numerous studies have demonstrated that humour has a positive effect on maintaining a good relationship among colleagues, i.e. as a way of 'doing collegiality' (see, for example, Brown and Keegan 1999; Holmes 2000, 2006). Other studies have established a relationship between humour and increased productivity (see, for example, Caudron 1992). Humour has also been seen as an essential tool for effective leadership (see, for example, Cooper 2002; Holmes 2007). Other studies have shown that humour has an effect on job satisfaction (e.g. Decker 1987; Susa 2002), and it has been seen as an effective means of avoiding or resolving conflicts among employees (see, for example, Fry 1992; Dzodin 1998; Smith et al. 2000). It is remarkable, however - At least from a sociolinguistic perspective - That relatively little research on the use and functions of humour in the workplace is based on recordings of authentic interactions in professional contexts. Only recently have we seen researchers turn to recordings and systematic analyses of workplace interactions (see, for example, Holmes 2000, 2006, 2007; Vuorela 2005; Rogersen-Revell 2007), whereas an overwhelming amount of humourresearch is based on self-reported data such as questionnaires and interviews (e.g. Cooper 2002; Susa 2002; Miczo and Welter 2006 ), or analyses of simulated situations such as role-plays (e.g. Dzodin 1998; see also Fant 1992 for a discussion of the use of simulated situations for research purposes). However interesting these studies may be, they rely on employees' (or students') beliefs about humour, and how they think they and other people use it. Therefore, we need to direct more attention to analyses of humour in authentic, real-life situations and contexts, including cross-cultural contexts. This chapter offers an analysis of the use and functions of humour in crosscultural telecommunications. The data for the analysis consists of an audiorecording of a teleconference between employees in the headquarters of a global business corporation in Denmark and their colleagues in the company's subsidiary in the UK. The employees have a joint project, run by the company's HQ in Denmark, and the purpose of the telephone conference is to discuss the status and progress of the project, focusing on how the project findings can be implemented on the British market. Strategies in relation to sales, logistics, finance, and change management are being discussed during the meeting. Humour is used rather frequently, and the purpose of the analysis is to identify the various functions of humour in this cross-cultural context. First, the chapter provides a brief review of the literature, focusing on the use of humour in cross-cultural contexts. Second, we present and discuss some of the excerpts from the telephone conference where humour plays a significant role in the employees' negotiations. Finally, we discuss how humour can be used constructively in cross-cultural business communication.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProfessional Communication
Subtitle of host publicationCollaboration between Academics and Practitioners
PublisherHong Kong University Press, HKU
Number of pages19
ISBN (Print)9789622099654
Publication statusPublished - 1 Dec 2009
Externally publishedYes

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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