Dynamic Humour Boundaries

  • Barbara Plester


Workplace humour and fun are bounded social activities. This chapter explores the role of boundaries that limit or constrain humour in the workplace. When discussing humour in their workplaces, people consistently use phrases such as ‘cross the line’ and ‘goes too far’ for humour that they believe is inappropriate or offensive in their work context – thus indicating that they perceive that a boundary exists. The boundaries are socially constructed by socialized employees and managers in workplaces and these boundaries reinforce both organizational and societal norms and propriety. Although not usually officially articulated and prescribed, organizational members know where these metaphorical boundaries lie. The boundaries are largely maintained by shared cultural understandings rather than formal policies and thus are dynamic and can be tested, pushed and exceeded but also can be firmly constrained. The dynamic nature of the humour boundaries means that they also change from situation to situation and operate fluidly as people move between formal serious meetings and more social workplace events such as parties and celebrations.

Formality is an important component of humour boundary construction that highly influences the types of humour that are considered acceptable in each organization. Workplace humour that may include elements such as high noise levels, physical humour enactments and jokes that are sexual, sexist, political and/or racist can transgress the perceived boundaries in organizations and this has resulted in most (overt) workplace humour being safe, sanitised and politically correct. When a transgression does occur, reactions and repercussions can be intense and cause emotional distress, dissonance and disharmony as well as a deliberate resetting of the humour boundary. Humour also has an impact on group boundaries and the final section of this chapter emphasizes how humour can define who is a member of either the in-group or the out-group and this highlights the importance of the role of humour in group dynamics.


Boundary Social construction Organizational culture Fun In-groups Out-groups 


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  • Barbara Plester
    • 1
  1. 1.Management & International BusinessUniversity of Auckland Business SchoolAucklandNew Zealand

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