Humor: do laughs belong in your business writing?

For generations people have been saying that funny jokes and laughter are good medicine. And now the scientists have taken an interest it turns out great-grandma was right. The boffins have discovered that laughter releases helpful goodies in the body which boost your immune system.

Humor: do laughs belong in your business writing?

Just because something makes you laugh, it doesn’t mean it will work universally. Here are some tips
to make sure you don’t upset anyone…

In fact the therapeutic benefits of laughter are now being harnessed by academia and the business community into laughter workshops and other formalized chuckle sessions. Get the workers laughing and you raise productivity, so it seems.

However it is extremely easy to get humor wrong. And a joke that’s sent to someone who doesn’t see the funny side will create more ill health through raised blood pressure than a few laughs could ever cure. So what’s the answer? How do we harness humor and make it work for us, not against us?

People often say that the internet’s international nature makes it an unsuitable environment for humor for fear of it not translating across national boundaries – and inadvertently causing offence. But there are a couple of simple rules which – although not universal panaceas that always work – can help you use humor in your writing without risk.

Make the jokes about issues, not individuals

If you think about it, the butt of many jokes and other humor is a person or group of people, so it’s hardly surprising that offence is caused. The more extreme types are obvious – mother-in-law jokes, blonde jokes, women jokes, men jokes – but there are many more subtle ones too.

Then there are the nationality gags. I remember in one year hearing exactly the same joke (in three different languages) told by an American about the Polish, by a Canadian about Newfoundlanders, by a French person about Belgians, by a French-speaking Belgian about the Flemish, and by a Flemish person about the Dutch.

Obviously most humor is going to involve people in one way or another. But as long as the butt of the joke is an issue or a set of circumstances, not the people, you’re far less likely to upset anyone. And there is an added advantage here.

Whoever they are and wherever they come from, people will usually identify with a set of circumstances. Take this one for example…

Some people are driving along at night and are stopped by a police car. The officer goes to the driver and warns him that one of the rear lights on his SUV isn’t working. The driver jumps out and looks terribly upset. The officer reassures him that he won’t get a ticket, it’s just a warning, so there’s no problem. “Oh yes there is a problem,” says the man as he rushes towards the back of the car. “If you could see my rear lights, it means I’ve lost my trailer.”

As the butt of the joke is the broken rear light and the loss of the trailer, not the policeman or the driver, no-one can be offended. And most people can identify with how that would feel.

The other key issue with humor is word-plays, puns, and anything else that’s based on figurative speech, slang, or jargon. The short answer is these don’t work internationally. However if the play or double entendre is in the concept rather than the words, it probably will work.

These may be funny to us, but would not be understood by anyone who is not a good English speaker because there is a play on the words:

* Déjà moo: The feeling that you’ve heard this bullsh*t before.

* The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.

The following, however, probably would be understood because the humor is in the concept, not in the words themselves:

* You don’t stop laughing because you grow old. You grow old because you stop laughing.

* The trouble with doing something right the first time is that nobody appreciates how difficult it was.

Books to help you laugh – all the way to the bank:

“How To Write About Yourself”…how to make the most of yourself, whatever you need to write

“Business Writing Made Easy…everything you need to know about writing for business in English

“Banana Skin Words and how not to slip on them”…over 1,500 spelling and grammar tips to perfect your written English

photo credit: Norma Desmond via photopin cc




  1. Oh, I do a lot of business writing in my day job. I have a really hard time keeping humor out of it. Every now and then I stumble over somebody that actually has a sense of humor and enjoys a good laugh. That person usually becomes my friend.

    Thank you!


    • I do so agree with you Iulian – humor is a great way to introduce friendship and relax what otherwise can be formal, stuffy business proceedings. Glad to see you here and keep checking back as I write a lot of humor here on on HTWB!


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