When a Joke Is Not a Joke…And When It Is
How Women Can Use Humor to Their Advantage In Negotiations

By Teresa Zink

Humor, or attempts at humor, can be potential land mines in negotiations.  How to determine when a joke is just a joke, and how women can use humor to their advantage, was an issue of particular interest at HB Litigation Conferences’ February teleconference on Effective Negotiation Skills for Women Lawyers.

Eileen Kavanagh of Litchfield Cavo, kicked off the discussion, noting that while humor is very individual, it is also to a large extent a difference between men and women.  She said she initially noticed the differences in her own children, “from the very earliest times my sons were much better able to kid around, to exchange jokes, and not to let jokes directed at them bother them personally, than my daughter was.”

She said it is important to recognize that “Women are not as comfortable with humor as men are and they don’t use it for the same purposes.”

Whether at a meeting, in the courtroom, or in the office, she said, “men are going to use humor both deliberately as a way of trying to probe for weaknesses in the people around them” and innocently; sometimes “they are just making a joke.”

How to Respond?

Sometimes a joke just isn’t that funny, she notes.  “It falls flat either because the joke itself isn’t particularly funny or because we are not in the mood or don’t think that particular joke aimed at us is something that we want to tolerate.”

There are several ways to respond, she explains.  “Just because a joke falls flat or we find it not especially humorous doesn’t mean that the jokester intended to be insulting or belittling or unpleasant,” she points out.  It is important to keep that in mind.  When someone’s joke falls flat, “Instead of taking it personally, instead of reacting in a way that makes it clear that the joke was not funny and you are not amused, is to allow the person making the joke a face-saver,” by making light of it and letting the conversation move on.  “You are giving him the opportunity to show his true colors, hopefully, by demonstrating that he didn’t really mean to be insulting or belittling.”

“In the same way,” she says, “when men are using jokes deliberately to sort of probe for weaknesses, it is a great thing to be able to turn it around on them and to joke back to show that they can’t use that against you.”  She gives the example of older male litigators who like to point out that they have been practicing for 30 or 40 years “with the clear implication that I am so young and inexperienced that I will never ever be able to match them.  There are many ways to turn that around to say, ‘Whoa! I didn’t think you looked that old,’ or, ‘My goodness, I’ve only been practicing for 24 years, but I will do my best to keep up with you.’”

Keep it Light
If you can make such a comment in a light, joking way, she says, it sends the message that “If you don’t take me seriously, you are doing it at your own peril,” but “in a way that no one can find fault with it.  You look good to the crowd at large.  You score points with your opponent who is trying to put you down because you have turned the tables on him.”

However, she adds, “It is important to not let any of this appear to bother you because it is just a way of communication.  Anyone who has watched the commercials for Sports Center or any amount of ESPN understands that this is something that guys do all the time.  That is just a way of communication for them and it is not something that we should necessarily avoid.  Let’s just use it for our own purposes.”

Panelist Nancy Peterson of Quarles & Brady agrees, she says that one of the important things “about not taking digs personally” is that it allows you to keep the focus on the others in the room.  “If you can treat humor with humor or laugh it off or just say something that doesn’t let it get to you personally, the person who is going to look foolish in the situation is not you.  It is the person who made the dig.”

According to Peterson, “everyone else will be watching your reaction and if you can take it in stride rather than firing off or going to tears or reacting emotionally, you can be sure that you will come out ahead in everybody’s viewpoint versus the person who has made the dig at your expense.  So keep the room in mind and try to keep it light.”

The Audio Package of the Effective Negotiation Skills for Women Lawyers Teleconference recorded February 12, 2009 is available for $150. The full transcript is $50. To order, contact Allison Emery at allison.emery@litigationconferences.com or 484-324-2755 x205.