Picture this. You’re on a job interview. The big moment has finally arrived. After weeks of scouring job boards, emailing resumes and bantering with head hunters, you finally find yourself face-to-face with that one person who has the power to change your life situation.
You’ve done everything right thus far. Put on your best suit, shined your shoes, even bought a new interview tie or accessory--not too flashy, not too conservative, just the right mix of, Hey, I’ll really fit in here but don’t I look creative? You’ve answered every question confidently. Talked all about how you can make a contribution to the firm. You even asked a couple of intelligent questions yourself. Your prospective boss is giving you all kinds of hiring signals, talking as though you were already “on the team.”
And then it happens. Suddenly the interviewer gets very serious. His eyes dart around the office. He shuffles his papers and rumples your resume. He leans forward across his desk and looks you straight in the eye. “And now,” lowering his voice, “we come to the most important part of this interview. We need to know how you laugh.”
“I beg your pardon,” you reply.
“Your laugh. I need to hear your laugh.”
Welcome to the Tryout Zone. Your interview has now become an audition.
Noticing the perplexed look on your face, the interviewer proceeds to explain.
“You see, we have a distinct way of laughing here at Swindell, Cheets & Skrooem and it’s important to us that anyone who joins the firm is able to perform the company laugh.”
Now those hands of yours that heretofore had remained perfectly dry begin to clam up. Your breath shortens and your mouth feels like it could suck a cactus. Unconsciously, you let slip with a little nervous titter.
“Oh no, that will never do! Please, please, try again.”
You scan his face for a sign that this is a joke—some final test to see how you’ll react under pressure. But Mt. Rushmore reveals no clue. You determine that he must be serious.
“Go on, please try. You’ve done very well up to this point. I just need to hear your laugh. It doesn’t have to be perfect. We can always give you some on-the-job training as long as you at least show some potential. Take your time.”
You suck it in—a deep breath. A quick glance toward the door to see if anyone is walking by. Coast is clear. This is crazy, but you give it a try.
“AH HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA, HA!!!!”
“Oh dear, I don’t so. I don’t think that will do at all. You see, here at Swindell, Cheets & Skrooem our laugh is a little more subtle. It’s more like heh, heh, heh, heh, heh—followed by a quick yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck. It helps if you start your Hehs with lots of volume and then back off a bit on the Yucks. Sort of a fortissimo to pianissimo effect. Please try again.”
“HEH, HEH, HEH, HEH, HEH, yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck!”
“That’s better. That’s pretty good, in fact. But you still need to choke it off a bit. Don’t be quite so free flowing. Sort of swallow the syllables. More staccato, if you will.”
“That’s it! That’s almost exactly right! Congratulations, you’ve got the job!
Many years ago a friend of mine once described a new client of the film production company where we were assistants as, “He’s OK, but he doesn’t make me giggle.” That always stuck with me because my friend, Nancy, did, indeed, like to giggle. If you said something that she found genuinely funny, she would go into a fit of laughter. But if anyone tried to be funny and failed—no matter how much other people politely laughed—she would remain silent and stone-faced.
I always admired that quality of my friend. I’ve often since wondered, however, if her career ever suffered from her habit of not laughing at something that wasn’t funny (she later went on to become an attorney). In corporate America, mastering the company laugh is as essential to survival as not beating your boss at golf.
The company laugh is, of course, an insincere laugh. That in itself is not so bad. Insincere laughter is a way of remaining polite—a sort of white lie that says, OK, you said something you thought was funny but I didn’t think it was funny but I’ll chuckle anyway just so you won’t be embarrassed. We do this at parties, for example, when we don’t know the other guests. Or to casual acquaintances. It’s a face-saving gift offered up to the humorless.
But the company laugh is more than just phony. It is rooted in fear. Fear of not being viewed as a team player. Fear of being excluded from all the guy-girl talk. Fear of being thought of as dense or aloof. Even the fear of being viewed as having no sense of humor.
But the greatest fear, of course, is fear of the boss. In most companies, you can pretty much tell when the The Big Man is on the floor because the company laugh starts getting performed all around you. I’ve had bosses who used to make the rounds of the premises every day. I guess it was their way of pressing the flesh—a kind of “management by wandering around” sort of thing made popular by Tom Peters’ and Robert Waterman’s book, In Search of Exellence, almost twenty years ago.
At first you could hear the laughter faintly in the distance. It usually sounded like a goddamn chorus warming up. Then it would get louder and louder as the boss and his ever-changing cast of backup warblers morphed into a mini-political convention party by the time they reached your area. If your office or cubicle was on the far side of the room you at least had the advantage of being able to get tuned up before the show hit town. But like a giant tsunami driving toward the shore, you knew you only had moments before you, too, would be engulfed by the company laugh.
If bosses were half as funny as their subordinates’ laugher pretends to suggest, Robin Williams wouldn’t be able to find work. I’m mean, what is so all-fired funny about, “Yeah, Bradley, we only work half days around here—12 hours!—heh, heh, heh, heh, heh?” Or, “Say, Kleeman, good job getting those rush orders out. Boy, those shipments flew out of here like crap through a goose, didn’t they—yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck, yuck?”
There are four ways to perform the company laugh, depending on the venue and availability of talent. The first, of course, is solo. Like learning the musical scales, it’s the most basic form and should be mastered before attempting any of the others. By laughing solo I don’t mean to suggest, however, that you should sit alone in your office and yuck it up. Rather, the Solo Company Laugh is when you—and only you—are the one reacting to a laughee. Like Sinatra singing “My Way,” you have total control of your timing, phrasing and volume.
There are a couple of things to keep in mind when soloing. First, to continue the singing analogy, make sure you know the tune. You’re on your own here, so if you forget your part you can’t just mumble along until you get to a page you remember. Listen carefully to what is being said and pick your laugh carefully. It’s most embarrassing, for example, to have to change midway through a loud guffaw when you suddenly realize a snorting chortle is more appropriate. Second, the solo company laugh should always be performed a cappella. In other words, no hand clapping, knee slapping, head shaking or high-fiving. You’re in a one-on-one situation here and any such accompaniment is over doing it and may be interpreted as brown-nosing.
The second way to perform the company laugh is as a duet. The great thing about the duet is that it allows you to laugh in harmony. It helps if you know your partner well. Ideally, he would be someone you work with all the time. That way, when you’re both in the men’s room taking a leak and the boss walks in, you’ll already know who’s going to carry the melody and who’s going to harmonize. Of course, you still have to be sure you’re laughing the same laugh. While yucking might blend nicely with chuckling, and a titter always sounds good with a giggle, cackling does not play well with snickering. One great thing about the duet is that accompaniment can, and probably should, be employed. Try tap dancing. The boss will eat it up.
Moving on up in company laugh complexity, we come to the quartet laugh. This is also known as the Departmental Laugh—or the Doo Wop laugh. Actually, anywhere from three to five people can participate—the point being that this laugh requires a small group that is very well rehearsed. This is the most phony company laugh of all, because one person is always the lead and the others are merely subservient laughers—i.e., back-up performers. Usually the lead laugher is the department manager or some kind of cross-functional team leader.
The lead laugher-manager bears the greatest responsibility for the success or failure of the Doo Wop laugh. Whenever The Big Man comes around he must do a quick mental review of the group’s repertoire and decide which laugh will be performed. And, of course, the group must wait to follow his lead. That’s why there’s always a herky-jerky start before the laugh gains it’s full momentum. The back-up laughers must do the corporate equivalent of snapping their fingers and two-stepping in place while Frankie warms up with the boss. As artificial as the departmental laugh may be, though, it does strike a primal chord. Doo, doo, doo, wop!— yuck, yuck. . . yuck, yuck.
The fourth company laugh requires a full chorus—otherwise known as an audience. It is only performed on those special occasions such as conventions and regional sales meetings. The great thing about the full chorus laugh is that everyone can get in on the act. As with a line dance or a Mitch Miller sing-along, all you have to do is follow the leader and the bouncing ball. Like the Morman Tabernacle Choir, the full chorus laugh always has a conductor. The conductor usually comes in the form of someone at the podium delivering a speech, but a company video or even a skit can lead just as effectively.
The full chorus laugh is always performed on cue. You will know exactly when you are expected to laugh because the conductor will pause in her presentation, look up from her script, and grin at you. New conductors may even use slides or a PowerPoint presentation to further guide you. That way, when you’re unsure if she wants you to laugh, all you have to do is check to see if there is a cartoon on the screen, or the words “Laugh Now.”
The full chorus laugh always follows a predictable bell curve and it’s virtually impossible to screw up if you pay attention to it. It’s very similar to the canned laughter of television. Volume up, hold, volume down. Simple. Just pretend you are a television sound technician and you are running the laugh track volume control. Each conductor will have a different bell curve, of course, but once you determine the pattern it’s as easy as falling off a log.
Since the company laugh has been around for centuries, I’m confused as to why no one has stepped forward to improve it. It’s still performed today pretty much as it was in Julius Caesar’s time. The only thing that has changed is that we’ve gone from togas to business casual. But we’re still yucking it up just like Cassius, Brutus, Trebonius and all the other boys in old JC’s entourage. And we all know what happened to Julie, but I’m not going to go down that road.
But it does seem that in this age of dot coms and bi-focal contact lenses we should finally be able to improve upon the company laugh. I have a couple of suggestions.
First, upon joining the firm all employees should be issued a Digital Optimizer for Reverential Kow-towing—commonly referred to by its acronym, DORK. A new technology, DORKs represent the state-of-the-art in company laugh replication but, unfortunately, are not available in all regions of the world just yet. They also don’t work well in tunnels or on the Long Island Railroad.
DORKs should be standard issue. Your first day at work you get your cell phone, your Palm Pilot, a key to the washroom and your DORK. The DORK can be pre-programmed with your own unique version of the company laugh. You wear it like a pager and whenever it’s necessary to do the company laugh all you have to do is press a button and it will play it for you.
More advanced versions of the DORK will, of course, be voice-activated. That way, if the boss sneaks up behind you with a dumb-assed joke, you will be on auto-pilot and start yucking it up even before his joke is finished. But the greatest thing about the DORK is that you don’t even have to be there to use it. You can leave it on your desk or on the conference table and it will do all your laughing for you while you’re out in the parking lot grabbing a smoke. Imagine the possibilities. With some creativity this little booger can be put to really great use. Take conference calls, for example . . .
However, the best way to improve the company laugh is to provide the proper training in the first place. Duh! Is this obvious, or what? But it is so often overlooked because the development of laughing skills is considered “soft” skills training. And like training in customer service, diversity and fire drills, the soft skills always get short shrift when compared to the more essential hard skills training commonly bestowed upon space shuttle astronauts and telemarketers. A new awareness of the importance of the company laugh needs to start at the top of the organization. After all, the fish rots from the head, and if the board of directors doesn’t recognize the contribution the company laugh makes toward keeping everyone in line, the stockholders should vote them out.
Company laugh training sessions should always be held in an uncomfortable location and at the most inconvenient time for the employees—like in the restrooms foyer or in a cold and drafty area close to the loading docks. Hard, straight-backed chairs are recommended. Remember, if people are unhappy about being in the training you can be sure their laughter will be phony.
Begin with a warm-up exercise. Get everyone involved with doing something really stupid and embarrassing—like running around the room smelling each other’s armpits. That way, when the trainer asks them what they learned from this experience, everyone will start lying right from the get-go. Having the right attitude is the first step in any successful training program, and you’ve now insured that everyone’s attitude sucks.
Once everyone has the right attitude, the next stage in company laugh training is to give the employees a little knowledge. Notice I said a “little” knowledge. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and that’s what you want. Conduct some demonstrations of the company laugh so that the class can get an idea of what it looks and sounds like. A good way to do this is to have the boss stick his head in the room and ask how everything’s going. The trainer can then start yucking it up with boss, saying things like this is the smartest class he’s ever taught. The students will quickly get the idea and may even start grinning before getting to the next phase of the training, which is . . .
Practice. Knowledge should not be confused with skill, and no skill can be developed without practicing. I mean, who would you rather fly with—someone who’s read a book and talked to a couple of flight instructors, or with the dude who pilots Air Force One? The guy shuttling the president around didn’t get to where he is because he read a manual and listened to some lectures. He practiced.
So make sure that any training you offer includes ample doses of practice time. Start by having everyone stand up and pair off with a partner. After a quick demonstration by the trainer, one person in each pair should begin to attempt his company laugh. While she is working on her hehs and yucks, the partner acts as a coach and cheerleader, nodding ingratiatingly, guffawing and urging the laugher on.
Once the basics are practiced in the classroom, then homework can be assigned. This is where the real learning takes place. Each student should practice the four fundamental laughs on his family, friends and co-workers—except for the solo laugh, of course (the solo laugh should only be practiced in the shower or in the car while driving alone to work). Have everyone keep notes of their progress during the week and bring them back to class for review at the next session. By the way, this is a great way to jump start that 360 performance evaluation program you’ve been having a hard time getting off the ground. Once a 360 feedback team has had practice evaluating an employee’s company laugh, they will be much more qualified to offer feedback in other areas of the poor schmuck’s performance, as well.
I guess the company laugh is a deeply inbred instinct and will never be completely eradicated from the workplace. Most of us continue to perform it because it’s the politically correct thing to do. We do it out of habit because, somewhere in the deep dark recesses of our collective unconscious, we know we must in order to survive. It’s a knee-jerk reaction for when we’re around people with whom we don’t share much of a common bond. But we all know that, more often than not, when the party breaks up eyes will roll or there will be comments about what an asshole so-and-so is.
But the simple fact remains that much of the stuff that goes on in today’s business world is, indeed, truly quite funny. I’ve had the good fortune over the years to work with people who were absolute riots to be around. Fortunes have made pointing out to us the funny things that go on at work. Let’s face it, we spend most of our waking days working. So it’s only logical that work should stoke the fires of much of what we find funny in life.
The sad thing is, when people really do laugh heartily and sincerely on the job, they are accused of goofing off. That old Calvinistic idea that work should not be fun or fulfilling still keeps rearing it’s ugly head. God forbid we should enjoy our work! So instead we perform—The Company Laugh.