Articles For and About Women at Work

Lessons I’ve Learned

Loudoun County Chamber of Commerce Newsletter

Use honey, not Vinegar: A Sense of Humor Can Serve You Well

You know the old expression “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar?” Well, this applies to the kinds of situations women often encounter at work where men say things they find offensive, or alienating. Sometimes women just feel left out of a discussion because there is too much “how about them Redskins” banter.

As women, you have choices about how to respond, but being able to handle delicate situations with humor will serve you well. If you respond harshly and you remind your listeners of the wicked witch of the West, you will most likely be called the “b” word. Over time, others’ perception of you may limit your chances of moving up in an organization because senior managers promote people they find easy to work with and having a sense of humor makes every day more pleasant. Besides, people appreciate being chided with humor rather than scolded. Criticism creates defensiveness.

If you fall into the category of “humor-challenged” here are some steps you might want to consider taking to “lighten-up”.

  • Self-observation: Find out what your triggers are. Triggers are events or situations that provoke an intense emotional response. First, pay attention to your internal reactions. If you have these kinds of reactions when sexist jokes or inappropriate comments are made:
  • Your stomach gets as tight as a ball,
  • Your jaw begin to clench so your teeth begin to grind uncontrollably
  • Your face gets flushed so you look like a petulant teenager
  • You dig your nails into your hands until they have those little new moon marks on them…….

Then you know these kinds of comments are your triggers. I’m not suggesting that you ignore behavior that is illegal (violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act) but for a while just observe your internal reactions.

Then observe your verbal reactions – what you are saying and how you are responding. Being conscious of your reactions helps you identify the behaviors or actions you might want to modify. If you notice that you sound like the girl in the “exorcist”, you’re on to something.

  • Observation of others: More importantly, though, observe the responses of others if you react angrily or in ways that might be perceived as “haughty.” While you have every right to voice your discomfort, your listeners might, in response, tune you out or get defensive. Their rolling eyeballs, slouched postures and grim faces will be good indicators that they’re unappreciative of your “feedback”. You might want to ask yourself whether you have accomplished your ultimate the goal: Is your goal to just stop the behavior at all costs or also give people information that helps them reflect upon and then change their behavior?
  • Find a role model: Locate a woman in a leadership position in your organization who reacts to situations humorously and gets a positive response from others. If there is no one in your organization, find someone or ask a colleague or friend to recommend a woman in a leadership position whose behavior your might observe. You might want to interview her to find out how she perceives behavior differently than you do, how she chooses to act, and what she has found to be successful.
  • Try reframing the situation: See how others use reframing to respond differently to situations that send you over the edge. Reframing involves changing the context so we see the situation in a new way. For example, you think some man is a total jerk but then you find out he is struggling with a personal problem and he uses his behavior to cover-up his own pain. While you still find his behavior objectionable, you might be more empathetic and willing to suspend judgment.
  • Lastly, find a partner who can help you lighten up. Whenever life just gets too serious, I call one of my girlfriends who I can count on to make me laugh. Then I can face the rest of the day a little lighter and brighter – and my stress level goes down.

Here’s a quick story. I once worked with a female Vice President who hated sports analogies. Every time she heard one, she made a caustic remark and that alienated all of her male colleagues. Her boss wanted to promote her but knew her biting responses was a “hot-button” issue with other staff. He hired me to coach her about her relationships with colleagues. I worked with her for several months and knew she had turned the corner when she used a baseball story in a meeting. While she wasn’t trying to become one of the guys, it sent the message that she was aware of their reactions and making an effort to bring a lighter tone to her interactions with them. You had better believe that the men at the table noticed it and began to see her in a more favorable light. Her promotion several weeks later was accepted and supported by her colleagues.

So the next time you are confronted with behavior that makes you uncomfortable, take a deep breath, remember “honey, not vinegar” and try to bring a little humor to the situation. You’ll be amazed at what happens when you do.

© Kari Uman 2004