ANDRE DESCHENEAUX’S grey hair may suggest sober maturity, but he doesn’t take himself too seriously. Standing in front of a audience of seminar-takers, he clowns and prances, he gesticulates and performs a little dance. His routine may not be the kind of subject usually given at these events. Still, he gets his point across. As the head (and only member) of the Applied Humour Association, his purpose is to educate people about humour on the job. And his advice is unequivocal: make them laugh.
Why? Because it motivates people, it gets their attention, it defuses conflict, it dissolves aggression, and it relieves stress. And because U.S. studies have proven that people who are sad or anxiety-ridden are more prone to heart disease and have weaker immune systems. As Descheneaux warns his audience, “there’s an unwritten law that humour and work don’t go together. People are suspicious of laughter on the job. We tend to feel that people who have fun at work are wasting their time. Whereas, in fact, maybe they’re creating team spirit.”
Funnily enough, Descheneaux’s attitude appears to be conquering the business world. He has been giving seminars on humour in the workplace for three years now, with increasing popularity. Currently, he’s on the road, spreading the gospel throughout Quebec, adapting it as he goes for academics, for the elderly, for concrete specialists and tire retreaders, and occasionally for bankers.
Celine Viens, who works in personnel training at CIBC, attended one of Descheneaux’s talks at the Institute of Canadian Bankers. The lecture worked for her, she says. “He lifted my spirits, in the middle of winter, and when I thought back on what he said, I couldn’t help smiling.”
One reason for Descheneaux’s success is his own extensive experience in the working world. He has worked in all sectors — public, para-public, and private. He has been a civil servant in Ottawa, a union official, a researcher, an education-sciences instructor, an instructor of managers and specialized physicians, a CEGEP teacher, a corporate lawyer, and a management consultant. All too frequently, he found his environment to be exceedingly solemn. “One company I worked for told me not to put anything funny in my memos,” he recalls. “I’ve always thought work should be fun,” and one day he decided to make his belief a full-time occupation. He spent two years studying humour and its applications, reading and rereading more than 40 books on the subject, and corresponding with Dr. Avner Ziv, director of the Psychology Faculty at the University of Tel Aviv in Israel, and one of the few acknowledged experts in this field.
His studies have made Descheneaux a veritable missionary for humour. He believes so strongly in its benefits that he thinks universities, colleges and high schools should offer humour courses. “You can take sewing courses, dancing courses, karate courses, and just about anything else, but there are no humour courses. When I was a teacher, I’d have loved to take a course on the ability to make people laugh. But we never learn any thing about its importance.”
According to Descheneaux, the number of ways in which humour is important is truly surprising. “One of the functions of humour is that it helps maintain certain norms,” he says, telling a story about a neophyte Hell’s Angel member who showed up with a Suzuki instead of the requisite Harley, only to be told, “Get rid of your Jap scrap.” As Descheneaux underlines, the Angels used their peculiar, off-colour brand of wit, to convey the message that only a Harley would do.
If humour can be used to establish standards, it can also be used to set the tone in the workplace. When a manager welcomes new employees with a little jocularity, they know they’re in a friendly environment, says Descheneaux. “People who attended one of my talks at the Institute of Canadian Bankers told a new employee that their bank vault was equipped with an extremely advanced security system and that you had to tell it: ‘Open sesame!’ It’s a way of saying to a new employee: ‘Look, we’ve got a sense of humour.'”
Descheneaux is convinced, moreover, that humour on the job makes it possible to deal with such daily irritations as finding a parking spot, coping with constant noise, and answering a phone that never seems to stop ringing. During his talks, Descheneaux sometimes recommends yapping like a dog if something gets on your nerves. And people have actually followed his advice. “After one of my talks, a man came up and asked me how much I charged. When he heard the price, he started going ‘Arf, arf, arf!'”
And humour catches people’s attention, Descheneaux points out. “I once gave a course on Fridays at 3:00 p.m. and I was warned that the students wouldn’t be very diligent. By injecting lots of fun into my teaching, I managed to keep attendance at a minimum of 85 per cent. For example, one afternoon in the middle of class, I suddenly switched on a portable cassette deck and played air guitar for a couple of minutes. Then I went on teaching as if nothing had happened. No doubt my students said to themselves: ‘Now, here’s a prof with a sense of humour!’ The next week, they surprised me with a choral serenade.”
This story reminds Descheneaux of yet another of humour’s advantages. “You have to put on your thinking cap to come up with funny situations, so humour on the job automatically develops employee creativity,” he says, and suggests that instead of leading meetings themselves, managers should assign the task to their funniest employee. “There’s always one person who’s recognized for his or her sense of humour and therefore is a leader of sorts.”
As for managers, Descheneaux thinks humour can actually help them enhance their leadership. Good managers are in fact recognized by their sense of humour, he maintains. “The president of the Domino pizza chain once addressed his annual meeting as Batman, amid gales of laughter,” says Descheneaux. “In effect, he was saying: ‘Maybe I don’t look serious dressed this way, but I can get away with it because I’m responsible for $2 billion in turnover a year.'”
Descheneaux is not the only one with faith in the power of laughter. There are an increasing number of humorous reference books on the market, from dictionaries to collections of graffiti in public washrooms. In the U.S. the latest New-Age phenomenon is the “humour room,” feel-good centres filled with funny audio and video cassettes, films, magazines, books and posters. Humour rooms are also used at Canadian hospitals, such as Ottawa’s Alta Vista Lodge, a cancer-treatment centre. Other hospitals even have Laugh-Mobiles that go from room to room, cheering up bedridden patients.
But while the use of humour within organizations is still a little-known phenomenon, companies have always used it to reach the public. And this strategy keeps evolving. Ben & Jerry’s, the American ice-cream chain, now employs a bus that takes a theatre company from city to city. At each stop, actors perform a funny play, free of charge, which is sponsored by a local Ben & Jerry’s store.
Such an approach is all very well for some companies, but is it appropriate for all of them? Can banks, for example, afford to be funny with their customers? Even Descheneaux isn’t sure. “If banks used humour with the public, they would frighten their customers” he quips. “Pepsi has increased its sales with Claude Meunier, but GM has stopped using humorous advertising campaigns with Yvon Deschamps and Andre-Phillipe Gagnon. Pepsi is a quick, emotional, impulse purchase. But cars are more serious, and the funny stuff doesn’t necessarily work.”
And while he enjoys a good laugh, Descheneaux is quick to caution against what he calls “toxic humour“: jokes at someone else’s expense like the Hell’s Angels crack. “You have to laugh with someone, not at someone. Racist and sexist jokes are unhealthy. And people who are the targets of such jokes must learn how to defuse them.”
Does the war between the sexes have to stop? “Should we stop telling jokes such as: ‘Hi Cynthia, I see you’re wearing a man’s vest today. There’s even an opening for the head.’ Or: ‘What do you call four men in a hot tub? Vegetable soup.'” Do jokes have to be sanitized? “Well, both sexes deserve to be laughed at,” says Descheneaux seriously. Besides, he argues, “non-toxic humour” creates solidarity among workers who are often faced with contradictory situations, because it allows them to agree on what’s funny at their company, when agreement on serious matters is difficult to achieve.
“When everybody’s laughing together at the same thing, there’s an automatic consensus,” says Descheneaux. “And that’s good for the working environment.” Consequently, he doesn’t hold out much hope for his success with union leaders. “I think unions will be the last to apply humour on the job, because it doesn’t promote labour disputes.”