Men are hard-wired to think they are funny. They use it as a courtship technique. A study by Eric Brassler at McMaster University finds that women rate men as more attractive if they make more jokes. And men are somehow aware of this, because they are more likely to make jokes if women are around.

This is probably part of women being hard-wired to select an appropriate mate; people who are funny are generally smart and creative people, because humor is about putting two unlikely things together in a clever way, according to an interview with Chris Robert, professor of management at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Also, Robert says his research shows that people who are funny are more likely to be promoted.

In the category of research to support what we already know, Adrian Gostick and Scott Christopher surveyed more than one million employees to find out that people like fun offices. This news is revealed in their book, The Levity Effect: Why it Pays to Lighten Up.

Anyway, their point is that fun people are more likable. Which is the problem with women: We are not as funny as men. That is not their point. It is my point.

But my gut tells me it’s right. My gut tells me that most funny women are gay. First of all, Brassler’s research found that men do not think women who are funny are more attractive. Also, Christopher Hitchins has a great piece in Vanity Fair, Why Women Aren’t Funny, where he points out that Jewish women are funny, but only because they have male qualities of humor -angst and self-deprecation.

All this makes me happy because people often ask me if I’m gay, and I used to think it’s because I am awkward when it comes to flirting. (Quote from the first guy I dated since the onset of my divorce: “You are an incompetent flirt.”) But now I take the question of my sexual orientation as a compliment: it means that I’m leveraging my angst-riddled Jewish upbringing to be the funny girl.

But back to The Levity Effect. Gostick and Christopher define lighthearted as something more broad than humor. Maybe this is because their book lacks the amount of humor you’d expect from people who write about the importance of levity. But they have a few chapters about how you don’t need to be a comedian in order to create levity. (Which may or may not be justified encouragement to the unfunny.)

I want to tell you to be careful about being funny – because trying to be funny and failing is so lame. But I am certain that men are hard-wired to try no matter what, because they want to mate. Which means they get a lot of practice outside the office. So women should try, too. It won’t help us get a mate, but it will help us get the career we want, (which, in many cases, does help find a mate).

74 replies
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  1. Hope
    Hope says:

    I’m not gay, but did grow up in a large Catholic family where making people laugh had huge value…in fact, we competed for the laughs. Consequently, many of my friends describe me as hilarious. It’s a great tool for flirtation, but you have to have a gut feel for it. Of course, with this background, I have always loved men who make me laugh out loud.

  2. Chris
    Chris says:

    “My get tells me that most funny women are gay.”

    Does that mean you think I’m funny?

    I think men like self-deprecating humor from women because they are not threatened by it. Note: Men do not like jokes about penis size by women. I learned that the hard way. Yuk Yuk.

    * * ** * * *

    I love that this string of comments is hilarious. Confirms my hunch that the people who read this blog are especially smart and creative :)

  3. missC
    missC says:

    Hitchens is an idiot. Were there any decent jokes in the article? Bet there weren’t. Male columnists who do columns around the theme, ‘The Trouble with Women…’ Subtext, ‘… is they don’t find me attractive.’

    Nice reasoning by the way. Ever seen ‘The Day Today’? ‘That is scientific fact. There’s no real ‘evidence’ for it but it is scientific fact.’

  4. Bobbi
    Bobbi says:

    I don’t even know where to start except to say thanks for a great intro to the weekend. I’m straight, I’m married, I’m Jewish and I’ve written humor for a small living. I gotta get back to work so I’ll finish by saying I wanted to hate the Hitchins piece but he is such a good writer and had me laughing outloud that I give up trying to figure out how to counter him. PS I learned humor at the dinner table from my dad. My mom tried to be part of our jokes but failed miserably. But she taught me how to read and pay attention to details on my school projects. Christopher, you win again.

  5. Not Funny
    Not Funny says:

    You can’t be serious. Are you, right now, trying to be funny? I’m a hilarious white woman, and I’m not even Jewish.

    Women are plenty funny, and you should know better than many that women are culturally instructed it to ‘zip it’, as men find funny women intimidating. That explains, in part, all the funny gay women — they don’t care about appealing to men. All the funny women are construed as less than feminine/butch/gay.

    And please don’t encourage non-funny people to give levity a shot. Either you’ve got that absurd gene and have an interesting life, or you don’t and you’ll get promoted for not causing any problems.

  6. GenerationXpert
    GenerationXpert says:

    I think women often get knocked down or ridiculed when they are funny. I’m funny and I feel this happens to me. And I sometimes find myself holding back as to not piss off anyone. I’m not Jewish or gay, but I do like to make fun of myself. I am Polish – and have a typical Polish mom – so I do probably have the angst thing going on.

    I feel like I need to tell a pithy joke now. How about this one?

    How many flies does it take to screw in a lightbulb? Two – but you always wonder how they got in there. Ha ha.

  7. Mary
    Mary says:

    In training, I’m constantly looking to be funny. Thankfully I’m more on the self-deprecating end.

    Also, a warning about humor…sometimes people translate it as sarcasm. If trying something new, it may be wise to let people know. : )

    Thanks, as always for your opinions, Penelope. You always make me think and that’s a very good thing.

  8. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    Yes, this is a great beginning to a great weekend – and I thought your Haiku was funny!

    My DH & kids have fun laughing at how dorky my jokes are. Although I’m not naturally funny, I make people laugh. I also know they are laughing AT me.

  9. Andrew
    Andrew says:

    Humor is a skill that can be practiced like anything else. As you said, being funny is just putting things two things together in a clever and unexpected way.

    It takes 10 years to get really good at anything and the primary factor that determines skill level is motivation rather than any kind of innate ability (see the Scientific American article called “The Expert Mind” for a fascinating examination of this, http://www.sciam.com/article.cfm?chanID=sa006&colID=1&articleID=00010347-101C-14C1-8F9E83414B7F4945). If men are better humorists than women then it’s because there is almost no stronger motivation for a man than the urge to mate.

  10. Ken
    Ken says:

    It’s haiku Friday!
    Or at least the threat of one…
    Such wishful thinking.

    An apple a day
    DOES keep the doctors away
    If you’re uninsured.

    Roses can be red
    Just like Rudolph’s crimson nose,
    Like Carrot Top’s head.

    Some people save coins,
    Stamps, papers and jelly beans.
    I hear Jesus saves.

    Last haiku is here…
    I heard your sigh of relief.
    Friday’s back next week.

    Have a good weekend!

  11. Mary
    Mary says:

    The article really stuck in my craw (where my craw is, I’m not sure–but the article is wedged there). First of all, these blanket generalizations based on one single study are useless. Second, if humor in men is so valued by women, wouldn’t it follow that women do have a sense of humor? Otherwise, they wouldn’t be able to discern who is funnier (smarter) than who. Hitchins seems to imply that not only are women are not funny they can’t tell what is funny. Which undermines his principle argument.

    Besides–any mother can tell you having a sense of humor and being able to laugh at nearly any situation is crucial to raising kids. It ain’t about the sacred birth experience, dude. It’s about the long slog–and you need to be able to laugh a lot along the way.

  12. Truth Teller
    Truth Teller says:

    Penelope,
    I think it’s funny how all your comments are brown nosers looking to make good in the blogosphere, but I think this post was intentionally offensive and controversial.

    In my opinion, you’ve had more smoke blown up your ass than steam boat. You’re the Kanye West of career blogs.

    There is no innate difference in potential humor between men and women.

    Your blog is good. But come on. This is a ridiculous post.

  13. missC
    missC says:

    TT: nice. You said it when I stuck to just thinking it… (and you’re closer to actually funny than all the prior ‘hilarity’ too).

  14. Jim Eiden
    Jim Eiden says:

    You’re funny how?
    Like a clown funny?
    You’re here to amuse us?

    Ode to Goodfellas, That scene is so appropriate to this post.

    I got my last permanent job by being funny in the interview. I took a risk, and it paid off. The interviewer tried to call me out. He said no one is perfect. he asked me if my wife ever got after me not doing laundry or the dishes.

    I looked him straight in the eye and told it happens all the time. I then told him that I might wear the pants, but my wife buys them, if he knows what I mean.

    He got a huge laugh from that. The whole point of that exchange is that he wanted know if I had any humanity and can admit mistakes.

    Keep up the good work, Big fan in Chicago.

  15. Dale
    Dale says:

    The use of humor generally makes one seem more approachable.

    The judicious use of humor is usually appropriate, even in grave settings.
    In my opinion though, men who try to be humorous, too often, appear desperate or lacking in confidence to their companions (male or female).
    Women who use humor, in contrast can either come across as confident, or ill at ease, depending upon other peripheral cues. E.g. Self deprecating humor in a woman, focused on obvious personal flaws is often viewed as a sign of poor confidence, and can be unattractive; whereas humor at the expense of one’s personal strengths is mainly viewed as a sign of confidence.
    I guess it also depends on the audience whether these situations make one seem attractive or a dork:)

    I love the divergence of comments related to this post. I’m always wary when everyone thinks like me or laughs at the same jokes I laugh at.
    Yes, this post is on the frivolous side, but it’s ultimately one person’s opinion. Let’s all agree to love it or hate it and share why we do, because that’s what gives life it’s flavor.

    Just my two cents worth:)

    P.S. Why, after all he or she has been through, does that damned chicken keep crossing the road?
    It must have more lives than Sylvester and Mr Whiskers combined.

  16. Working Girl
    Working Girl says:

    I personally would not date a man who did not appreciate my humor.

    If he’s intimidated by that, he surely has a raft of other problems.

    Hitchens IS an idiot, but an entertaining one.

  17. Leslie M-B
    Leslie M-B says:

    Is it that women aren’t funny, or that we aren’t funny around men? Most of my women friends are hilarious, but I see them mostly without men around us.

  18. Taffy
    Taffy says:

    I’m funny as hell, but I’m not gay. I’ve always said my purpose in life is to make people laugh, laugh hard, and laugh a lot. That probably explains why I’m every guy’s best friend and rarely seen as more than that!

  19. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    I agree that the women that make me laugh the hardest are the ones with more “man” like humor. But, I’m a man which means they are speaking about things that are funny to me. I’ve actually never thougt of a woman being gay if they are funny – but than again, I never attributed sexual nature to humor. At any rate, making people laugh makes you more approachable – it opens you up for people to speak to you. When I’m joking with people at work passer byers may join in…but if it’s all business passer byers will just pass by.

  20. Andrea
    Andrea says:

    I would say that women are more incidentally funny, whereas men (and gay women?) tend to go after it with a deliberate effort. I’m a gay woman (How many are there who read this thing? Jesus, that seems like a more than 10% comment margin!), but I work with a few straight women who are quite funny. I find that their humor is situational, not necessarily self-focused. They make jokes about things we’re interacting with (it’s food service, so there’s plenty to mine). Whereas I’d say tentatively that the two qualities that are key to modern humor, angst and self-deprecation, tend to draw attention to the speaker in an indirect but effective way. You’re basically talking all about yourself without seeming to. And the chemical component to laughter is pretty powerful, so the woman who laughs while thinking about your self-deprecating jokes is ultimately getting a pleasant sensation associated with you. Even if you’re calling attention to your flaws, any press is good press, eh?

    That said, I looooove making women laugh. I sort of think it’s a sad fact that biology – or whatever you want to call it – dictates that the peacock principle results in a great waste of straight woman humor in relationships. Why would you be an incompetent flirt if you’re funny? That’s so strange to me. If I couldn’t crack jokes I’d never get laid.

  21. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    Humor in the workplace from a male perspective. It’s a necessary ingredient and needs to be applied at the right place, the right moment, and in the correct dosage. Normally it’s not something you plan for but rather happens when the conditions are right – it’s just something you know because you’ve been there before and it feels right. I interviewed with this Jewish guy who I later ended up working for even though he was my boss’s boss – matrix management. His range of jokes was broad and there were no prisoners. We definitely connected on the humor level. He was one of those sharp guys who had an arsenal of jokes for any occasion. I didn’t have any jokes for him unfortunately but it didn’t matter. He would tell jokes and we would laugh and make comments, etc. Looking back on it all it may have been a form of an IQ test to see if I got it and how fast I got it. Of course once the jokes get started you start getting into the funny stories and possibly even relate further. My job as an engineer was very analytical and included setting up and running tests, reviewing results, writing reports, pouring over specifications, etc. Humor in the workplace was a great diversion to work the other side of the brain to try and make 1 + 1 = 3. Humor was like a mini vacation at work and I felt if I had to work with someone that couldn’t have a little fun then they just weren’t pulling their weight. I’m not just talking about jokes. It’s about finding something funny or offbeat in a sea of morass.
    In any case I have a short joke for my former boss (Perry) now even if he may not read this blog. Unfortunately I don’t know the source.
    A 3-year-old boy examined his testicles while taking a bath. ‘Mom’, he asked, ‘Are these my brains?’ ‘Not yet,’ she replied.

  22. John Feier
    John Feier says:

    “My gut tells me that most funny women are gay…where he points out that Jewish women are funny, but only because they have male qualities of humor -angst and self-deprecation.”

    This is the perfect description of Sandra Bernhard. She is gay, Jewish AND funny.

    For a long time, I wouldn’t even CONSIDER humor as a way to score with women. I always thought that if women were attracted to something so superficial, then I really don’t want to be associated with such a woman. But I’m beginning to see that women use humor as a way to peer into the personality of a guy. If I can find another way for women to look into my personality other than humor, then maybe I will satisfy that urge they have to be able to “look into a man’s soul.” But I really haven’t found what that something is.

    F.J. Sharke, author of “How to be the JERK that women love,” says that women are more apt to go for the guy who is highly critical and mean to them than they are with a guy who is quiet and constantly nice to them. Being nice is nice, but because a man is being exactly as the “rules of society” tell him to be then that really doesn’t tell a woman what kind of person he is, whereas, with the guy who is mean and highly critical, they at least have a sense of what it’s going to be like to live with the guy. I think that’s really what needs to be conveyed, whether we do it through humor, being a jerk or however way we want to do it.

    But that’s easier said than done. Being funny takes practice because it doesn’t merely involve memorizing jokes. It involves “loosening yourself up” and not being afraid of not impressing her. Same way with being a jerk. You’re not concerned with impressing her. You’re just concerned with being yourself so much that she sees the authenticity that is you.

  23. John Feier
    John Feier says:

    “I sort of think it's a sad fact that biology – or whatever you want to call it – dictates that the peacock principle results in a great waste of straight woman humor in relationships.”

    That was one of my thoughts that I couldn’t get down before hitting “Submit Comment.” I was going to say it like this:

    The reason that humor is more important to men than it is to women is because women use humor as a way to peer into the man’s personality. Whereas men use a woman’s body and/or pretty face to determine their personality. In other words, we seem to be perfectly willing to put up with a real bitch if we have to as long as she has a nice body or a pretty face. Superficial, but that’s the truth as I see it.

    Women, on the other hand, don’t seem to place as much emphasis on how a guy looks as much as how a guy acts. So, it’s not that men find humorous women threatening. It’s just that we find humor in women to be useless.

  24. John Feier
    John Feier says:

    It just seems to me that there should be a better way to determine if a guy is right for a lady than using humor.

    If we were to somehow manage to escape from all of these formalities such as “a guy must be funny” and “a woman must have a cute ass,” then I think we could be better off.

    If we could, with each and every encounter, explain EXACTLY how we feel at THAT particular moment, using some amount of civility, of course, then I think that we could find a deeper connection with people. Once we open this box, however, it’ll be like Pandora’s Box. We will never be able to close it and all of those formalities that we now treasure such as “boyfriend,” “girlfriend,” “husband,” “wife,” “partner,” “funny,” “sexy ass,” “jerk,” “nice guy,” “bimbo,” etc. will all be completely meaningless. Formalities are how we label those abstract qualities that are too socially-incorrect to enunciate.

    Suppose instead of the usual “How are you?” or “Nice weather, huh?” we instead say, “You know, I’ve struggled to find what it is that I’m supposed to do with my life and I know that I could do a lot of things to improve the lives of other people but sometimes, I just feel like I’m completely clueless. Can you offer some advice?” or “My husband just physically beat me because I want a divorce.”

    Would we be able to have that kind of society? Would we be able to handle that kind of frankness and honesty?

    If not, then maybe that’s why we need “formalities.” Maybe that’s why need all these games that we play. But I swear, there’s nothing quite like getting to the heart of the matter.

    Sorry to go on about this, Penelope, but this topic kind of touched a nerve.

  25. Gloria
    Gloria says:

    I developed an active sense of humor in the recent years and I have to say that it works for me when it comes to work. As I have a tendency to be too serious and demanding and opinionated so the humor addition takes the tension out as it puts things in perspective and reduce everything to a solvable situations.

  26. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    Penelope:

    Unless you have been using the word “gay” in its original sense, when it meant happy or jolly, I have to wonder about what company you have been keeping and whether you really need to get out of Madison more! :-)

    I have some female friends with a cracking sense of humour and they are straight as a plumb line.

    PS: On my first line, if you could laugh at it, you probably pass the levity test. Therein lies the rub – being able to laugh at yourself.. :-)

  27. Casey
    Casey says:

    Perhaps women are less likely to be considered “funny” in the same way men are because many women have low self esteem. You’re not going to take a risk in making a joke if you’re afraid of being rejected. Perhaps gay women have higher self esteems?

    I am a straight woman… known for her sense of humor and ability to make people laugh. I certainly can’t tell a joke to save my life, though! And yes, I consider my self esteem healthy.

  28. Dave
    Dave says:

    John said “This is the perfect description of Sandra Bernhard. She is gay, Jewish AND funny.”

    …and this is the perfect example of just how subjective humor is – I can’t find anything humurous in Sandra Bernhard. Just to avoid being sexist, I’ll point out Gilbert Gottfried. Somebody must find him funny, as he’s made a career out of what he does, but the man grates on my nerves. Monty Python makes some people ROTFL, and some people just don’t get them. Homor is too subjective to be neatly categorized and put into a box – Try again! ;)

  29. Stacy Armistead
    Stacy Armistead says:

    I love this post – because believe it or not, the observation that made me realize I needed to leave my new job of 7 weeks (which I officially did today, during the onset of a recession, maybe not so smart – oh well) was that I wasn’t smiling or laughing nearly as much as I usually do. The culture was too corporate and too serious for my taste.

    By nature, I’m a funny person (big fan of self-deprecating humor, puns and complete randomness). And somewhere along the way I developed a ridiculous laugh that sounds like a goat bred with a machine gun and a sheep, which often causes others to contagiously laugh out loud, or at the least, comment on the ridiculousness of it.

    If you’re wondering what that sounds like:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgmlnrbVpq8

    Other random observation on humor: as a single female gen Y’er who has scoured hundreds of online profiles on dating sites (honestly more for entertainment than desperation purposes – no really, I swear!), I’ve noticed that, for some reason, nearly 75% of the men in the ads tout a “sarcastic sense of humor.” What’s up with that?

  30. MariaMH
    MariaMH says:

    I have to say I don’t agree at all. I have always made funny comments around men and women and people tell me I am funny on a regular basis. They love my “dry wit.” My friends, both men and women, were funny in college and we never thought about shutting up in front of the guys we hung out with or dated. The guys I dated, and this included my husband, loved that I was comfortable enough with myself to make self-deprecating jokes and any other kind of jokes. And if you ignore whatever attracted me and my husband to each other in the beginning, the thing that has kept us together for over 17 years is that we still have the ability to make each laugh like hell – on a daily basis. Now that we know each other so well we sometimes have to really go out on a limb to do it (seriously I say stuff that would make a truck driver blush).

    And I would never work anywhere that I didn’t laugh on a regular basis, and I have worked with a lot of women and they were funny (and not necessarily gay or Jewish). I find it really weird that people think women aren’t funny – and I don’t mean silly, goofy humor. I mean intellectual zingers that show that she is smart and not afraid to show it. Maybe it is something in the NE Ohio water?!

  31. MariaMH
    MariaMH says:

    I have to say I don’t agree at all. I have always made funny comments around men and women and people tell me I am funny on a regular basis. They love my “dry wit.” My friends, both men and women, were funny in college and we never thought about shutting up in front of the guys we hung out with or dated. The guys I dated, and this included my husband, loved that I was comfortable enough with myself to make self-deprecating jokes and any other kind of jokes. And if you ignore whatever attracted me and my husband to each other in the beginning, the thing that has kept us together for over 17 years is that we still have the ability to make each other laugh like hell – on a daily basis. Now that we know each other so well we sometimes have to really go out on a limb to do it (seriously I say stuff that would make a truck driver blush).

    And I would never work anywhere that I didn’t laugh on a regular basis, and I have worked with a lot of women and they were funny (and not necessarily gay or Jewish). I find it really weird that people think women aren’t funny – and I don’t mean silly, goofy humor. I mean intellectual zingers that show that she is smart and not afraid to show it. Maybe it is something in the NE Ohio water?!

  32. missC
    missC says:

    ‘…sadly prompts memories of Christopher Hitchens’ piece in Vanity Fair last year, in which he asserted, at tedious length, that women just aren’t funny.’ Kira Cochrane, The Guardian, today 05/02/08. Thanks Kira! I did suspect the girly squealers defensively protesting about how Hitchens IS funny, yarBOO, so THERE, were protesting a little too much…

    No I don’t feel the need to find out for myself. I’ve seen him on t’ telly previously and he was not a laugh, just a big shouter-downer.

  33. groan
    groan says:

    I’m so sick of un-funny women saying that all women are un-funny, or naturally less funny than men. No. YOU are un-funny.

    Women are raised to be audience members, and men are raised to be showboats. If you bought into those crappy limitations, well that’s too bad for you, but speak for your own lame sense of humor. Mine’s in great shape — and it’s not Jewy, gay, or butch.

  34. MDC
    MDC says:

    Oh, look, Penelope puts up another post that denigrates women. And the sun rose in the east this morning.

    I know you’ll delete this, dear, as you do any comment that tells you what a shallow and seriously messed-up little ball of fluff you are, but go back to volleyball and stop trying to give advice to the grown-ups.

  35. Dan Eustace
    Dan Eustace says:

    Hi Penelope,

    From a husband of 36+ years…
    Venus and Mars? Differences and enjoying them are the spice of life.

    Be yourself, learn from others, don’t just tell people what they want to hear–
    Make commitments and hold to them.

    Be the person people want to go to when they are in need. Be open when you are in need.

    Dan

  36. peter
    peter says:

    my god, don’t we all need a little (a lot?) more humor in the office!! someone said that offices are places where people go to die and after my last gig overseas, i’m starting to believe it…

    can’t tell you how tedious life can be when everyone is uptight……

    sadly there’s just a lot of people who are downright clueless in many areas

  37. karen
    karen says:

    First…I laughed throughout your post.

    Second…I laughed even harder through the comments.

    Third…for me, one of the sexiest things about a man is his sense of humor. If he can make me laugh and keep up with my dry wit, it’s game on!

    Fourth…you must not find me funny as I’m not gay.

    Awesome post, even if it stirs up some controversy.

  38. katie
    katie says:

    Interesting article..

    I am a funny girl.. I am often called “wacky”. My mom frequently calls me “weird”. I just think it sucks for them that they can’t laugh as much as I do.

    I personally think that most men really do not have a sense of humor. Men always attempt to be funny, a lot of them act as if they are trying. People who try to be funny are not funny.

    I recently decided that being “weird” is better than being normal.

    Women always try to repress the side of them that they have no control over.. being funny is about saying whatever you think and not worrying what other people think. It’s hard for a lot of women to not worry about what other people think about them.

    oh and im not gay either.. just a little wacky and a horrible flirt..

  39. Patricia Robb
    Patricia Robb says:

    At one job the two men I worked for were very funny. I often told them they should take their show on the road as they were always bouncing jokes off of each other. Some days it was like being in a Monty Python movie. It was the most fun working environment I had ever been in. It was also the busiest office I had ever worked in. If you work in a high stress office, laughter is a necessity.
    My comedic duo has since broken up, but it has left me with a funny bone mentality when it comes to working.

  40. steve
    steve says:

    What I find funny is how many people are so serious in their comments. I laughed when I read the first sentence, “Men are hard wired to think they’re funny.” I tell my wife all the time I don’t think I’m funny, I KNOW I’m funny. Great post.

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