How You Can Champion Humor as an Essential Skill in Students

A student has just made you laugh.

Now what? How do you respond to that ability?

We champion self-authorship in students’ leadership journeys and insist that student employees bring their authentic selves to the interview table. So when they shine through delivering comedy and wit, the joke is on us if we do nothing with that strength.

The Value of Humor

In my formal evaluations, highlighting a student’s sense of humor is just as important as highlighting other critical skills, such as promptness or conflict mediation. In fact, humor can be the vehicle driving other performance areas.

Humor has the power to alleviate stress, make work fun, and sooth awkward social interactions. Some people also use humor to communicate their feelings, especially if they’re at odds with the dominant perspective.

"Just trying to defuse the tension" gif Harry Potter

We can (and do) teach students how to manage conflicts, initiate challenging conversations, and develop many other skills. But it’s much harder to teach anyone how to have a great sense of humor. 

Cataloging ways in which our students use humor in their positions ensures, first, that we’ve recognized and appreciated how they use that strength. We spotlight, probably for the first time in their lives (besides winning “biggest jokester” as a high school superlative), a quality that drives success in teamwork, leadership, and optimism.

How we catalog and react to humor matters. Here are some ways we can do this for student leaders, especially student employees.

7 Ways to Support Humor

1. Detail the whole story

Through a behavior-based approach, tell the whole story of when, how, and the impact of the humor, concisely — not just that the student made someone laugh while on the job. 

For example, one of my resident assistants played an audio soundbite during a staff meeting when a discussion about new departmental expectations wasn’t going over well. The soundbite was created during our fall opening and became an inside joke for the team, at a time when collective attitude about the position was at its pinnacle of positivity. Recognizing this, the RA worked his audience of peers with a three-second, semi-awkward jest. 

It was an effective callback and an implicit reminder that the position isn’t all about deliverables and policy review. It can be fun. His ability to uplift everyone’s attitude at that moment now lives in his performance review.

2. Adapt reporting to something familiar

If documenting humor seems strange for the work environment or doesn’t fit neatly into the way your organization reports performance, don’t dismiss it altogether. 

My department uses the CliftonStrengths assessment each week to inform our work approach. Plus, at an institutional level, our incoming first-year students will begin taking the assessment in their transition-to-college course.

So, when I document humor in evaluations, I often pair the narrative with how it applies to an RA’s strengths in their assessment results.

In the example I shared earlier, my RA was able to assess the room to determine that a humorous soundbite would lighten the mood. He demonstrated his restorative strength.

In the past, I’ve also documented RAs utilize their strength of woo on parents during open house tours through humor.

3. Continually leverage it

Documenting humor solely through performance evaluations doesn’t wholly demonstrate an appreciation for the strength.

Invite your comedic students to lead an ice breaker during staff meetings. Or strengthen your rapport by allowing them to (respectfully) roast you from time to time. It’ll show your comfort and encouragement of the humor.

gif of Beyonce laughing and clapping

4. Share it

Our students aren’t stationary, especially if other folx around campus recognize their excellence. They’re tapped for new leadership positions, take on internships, and get pulled into collaborating with others. So, through recommendation letters and phone calls, share how your student brings humor as a strength to the table.

5. Allow yourself to miss the punchline

You might not always understand your students’ jokes. The current Reddit trend or meme of the week may not be something you’re familiar with, and that’s okay. But always pay attention to the impact of a comment or gesture, even if the joke flies over your head.

In 2016, when the dabbing gesture was beginning to trend, a couple of my RAs not-so-secretly did the dance while sitting in a training session about “dabbing” — a term used to describe a particular kind of concentrated cannabis use. 

I wasn’t the only professional in the room who wasn’t in on the joke, and while it could have been easy to shut down the behavior as a distraction to our campus police partners who were leading the discussion, the corrective action would have been misplaced.

The gesture alleviated the already long day of heavy topics through comic relief, and the officer seemed to understand the crossover in the wording.

Still, if the speaker had been distracted, it still would’ve been important to document the humor. It’s okay to recognize it as a strength that needs fine-tuning

6. Redirect it

Whenever a student uses humor ineffectively, I encourage them to reflect upon self-management and social awareness components of emotional intelligence. Action plans for “poor performance” of humor — such as a misplaced punchline or content that’s inappropriate for the workplace — don’t need to prevent continued use of humor. 

"Maybe we could try again." gif SVU

Instead, try prompting the student to take a pause before spouting a joke and to reflect upon why they want to use it. Professional comedians often urge themselves to use an activator strength. Our students, similarly, might want to jump in the pan while the fire is hot and the timing feels right, but we can help them to evaluate and adapt.

Use one-on-one time to unravel an instance of humor that hadn’t been effective. Talk through wich elements work well and which need practice. Though humor can be innate, it can also be honed intentionally.

7. Collaborate with colleagues

If working with humor as a strength isn’t an area of comfort for you, I suggest working with colleagues before documenting it in a performance evaluation. 

Dr. Pete Ludovice is a bioengineering professor at my university, and he also happens to be a stand-up comedian. I worked with him in a living-learning community during my first year at Georgia Tech, and he often encouraged aspiring entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas through comedy. 

I learned a lot from him about how to develop a funny bone in others, and how to seamlessly relate it back to the students’ “why”. Here, humor was innate. The students’ left brain approaches didn’t always sync with their right brain tactics, but he fostered the strength through role modeling and feedback.

It can be easy to mislabel humor as joking around or not taking the job seriously, so learning from others about how to identify and leverage it is a sound part of professional development. Student affairs work can be fun —– a hoot even. Let’s capture those moments and integrate them into our work, especially to lift up the students we work with. 

"Excellent" Wayne's World gif

How have you witnessed humor as a strength in your workplace? Share your quips with us at @HelloPresence.

Benito Nieves

About the author: Benito is a New Jersey native and hall director at Georgia Tech. He collects novelty dice and flips a coin to determine if it's a coffee or tea day. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

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