Managing a joke

David L. Collinson


Source: Collinson, D.L. (1992) Managing the Shopfloor: Subjectivity Masculinity and Workplace Culture, Berlin, New York, Walter de Gruyter, pp. 105-10.


[...W]orkplace humour can also be the means by which social frustration and conflict can be expressed in ways that may either reduce hostility and maintain social order (Emerson, 1969, 1970) or constitute resistance and a challenge to the status quo. Burawoy (1979) discovered that racial prejudice between blacks and whites was articulated in jokes on the shopfloor Since the production process demanded a degree of worker co-operation, overt racial hostility had to be minimised and was therefore diluted in humour. For functionalists such as Radcliffe-Brown (1940), joking relationships enable the articulation of 'a mutually permitted form of disrespect' in an otherwise potentially conflictual social situation. This view is confirmed by Burns (1953, p. 657) who argues that joking is 'the short cut to consensus'. Wilson (1979) has suggested that joking constitutes a 'safety-valve', which has the conservative function of channelling hostility and thus sustaining social order.


The relationship between humour and social stability is highlighted by other studies that emphasize how those in positions of power can use the 'pacificatory' qualities of joking. Both Coser (1959) and Goffman (1961) have argued that humour tends to be the prerogative of those in charge.[1] Zijderveld (1968, p. 297) has noted that 'joking down' is a paternalistic device' which may provide subordinates with a feeling of belonging to the family'. Similarly, Pollert (1981) discovered that the sexual banter of a female dominated shopfloor can be incorporated into the language of managerial control. Male supervisors were able to dis­guise discipline within sexual innuendoes, jokes and flattery. At Slavs [the factory studied], humour was used by managers in the subtle processes of discipline that were mediated through the corporate culture campaign. Hence humour can be used as a 'managerial resource to mask the auth­oritarian content of a message' (Dwyer; 1991, p.5).


Yet, joking does not always constitute a shortcut to consensus and social harmony. Giddens (1979) highlights that joking can be deadly serious and inherently oppositional.


Scepticism about 'official' views of society often is expressed in various forms of distancing - and in humour Wit is deflationary Humour is used socially both to attack and to defend against the influence of outside forces that cannot otherwise easily be coped with.

(1979, p. 72)


Freud (1976) distinguished between jokes that are 'innocent' and those which are 'aimed'. Fletcher (1974, p. 158) has differentiated between 'wit' and 'satire'. He argues that wit is concerned to ridicule those who 'take themselves too seriously' and are 'too big for their boots'. It is a 'great leveller' which accepts the status quo. By contrast, satire is more disturbing since it seeks to see through and challenge the world taken for granted, turning it upside down through the medium of humour Satire thereby generates a critical questioning of social conditions. Green (1978) and Pitt (1979) both assert that humour is an important element in the collective oppositional culture and group solidarity of the miners.


This point is elaborated by Linstead (1985) who argues that organizational humour is often closely related to particular practices of resistance and sabotage. His research highlights the way that joking helps to establish an informal world outside the strictures of organizational control and management. He shows how the canteen, toilets and workbreaks can be colonized by workers seeking to regain a degree of personal autonomy and control. By reversing the normal taken-for-granted order, joking contributes to this process of subversion.


Willis (1977) makes a closer link between humour; masculinity and resistance and is therefore a valuable development of many of the studies previously mentioned. Sufficient to repeat here, that he tends to romanticise this joking culture and to impute too strong a sense of solidarity between the lads. Seeking to deconstruct the joking culture at Slavs and to avoid romanticism, the following analysis examines these practices through an interrelated focus on power and subjectivity. This reveals how joking practices are a medium and outcome of interrelated cultural practices of resistance, conformity, control and self-differentiation on the shopfloor.


Humour as resistance


Practices of shopfloor humour can be seen, at least in part, as an expression of workers' resistance against both their highly controlled tasks and elite control within the company. The spontaneous and cutting creativity of shopfloor banter is indeed conditioned by a desire to make the best of the situation and to enjoy the company of others. Many of the workers themselves see the humorous repartee as a way of dealing with their monotonous work, as one told me,


Some days it feels like a fortnight. A few years ago I got into a rut I had to stop myself getting bored so I increased the number of pranks at work


'Having a laff' allows the men to resist their mundane circumstances, providing the illusion of separation from an otherwise alienating situation. Their subjective investments in frivolity and absurdity also reflect and reinforce a shared sense of group identity and self differentiation. This is illustrated by the following comment,


He's writing a book about this place, it'll be a best seller, bigger than Peyton Place with all the characters in here!


Concerned to show that they are 'big enough' to laugh at themselves, the men insist that joking reflects the essential nature of the person.


This collective self identity as a community of comedians is strengthened by the reputation of its members. These reputations are often sustained through nicknames. Based on exaggerated and stereotyped personal characteristics, their daily usage in shopfloor interaction helps create a mythical, imaginary and even charismatic world that sustains a distance from boredom and routine. 'Fat Rat', 'Bastard Jack', 'Big Lemon', and 'The Snake' are names conjured up daily in the Components Division. 'Electric Lips' is unable to keep secrets. 'Pot Harry' is so nicknamed because, as a teaboy, thirty years before, he had dropped and broken all the drinking 'pots'. 'Tom Pepper' is reputed to have never spoken the truth in his life. Another man is known as 'Yoyo' because of his habit of walking away and then returning during a conversation and even in mid-sentence. His 'Yoyo' record has been calculated as fifteen returns in one conversation. Although exaggerated, these cultural identities contribute to shopfloor cohesion by developing a shared sense of masculinity. Only 'real men' would be able to laugh at themselves by accepting highly insulting nicknames (see also Lyman, 1987).


Joking facilitates manual workers' self-differentiation from, and antagon­ism to, white collar staff and managers. 'Taking the piss' is a defensive mode of managing their subordinated shopfloor status. Shopfloor workers perceive their own joking culture to be a symbol of freedom and autonomy that contrasts with the more reserved work conditions of the office staff. Permeated by uninhibited swearing, mutual ridicule, displays of men's sexuality and 'pranks', the uncompromising banter of the shopfloor is contrasted, exaggerated and elevated above the middle class politeness, cleanliness and more restrained demeanour of the offices. Ironically, when compared with others, the subordinated world of the shopfloor comes to be defined by the men as a free space in which the 'true self' can be expressed, as one machinist elaborated,


You can have a load of fun on the shopfloor but in the offices, they're not the type to have a laff and a joke. You can't say 'you fucking twat!' in the offices.


In a similar way the joking culture reflects and reinforces the sense of 'us and them' in relations with the management. The perceived conformism of managers and their reputed inability to make decisions is reflected in their being nicknamed 'the yes men', and being ridiculed as effeminate. On one occasion, as a result of a workforce 'go-slow', a significant short-fall occurred on management's projected production levels. This stimulated Tom, the axle shop steward, to joke,


(The production manager) will have a baby when he sees these figures.


Shopfloor humour directed at managers is usually concerned to negate and distance them, as the box ‘supervisors and bums’ illustrates. The irony that three foremen had not been informed of a course in communication skills, to which they had been assigned, was not lost on many shopfloor workers. Similarly, after one worker was reprimanded for being late for work, he responded by clocking on for work two hours early the following morning.[2] The same man also had a reputation for writing sarcastic poems about particular foremen and managers. In general, however; shopfloor humour tends to remain within and seeks to define the bound­aries of the collective culture of the group.


By contrast, management repeatedly try to engage shop stewards in humorous interaction. Yet the stewards are aware that this managerial humour is part of a wider strategy intended to obscure conflict and the hierarchical structure of status and power behind personalised relations. Hence they avoid participating, for as Eric, the AUEW convenor explains,


You've always got to retain a difference from management because they try to draw you in. At first they tried to come on a bit, but we didn't think much of their jokes.


Aware that the house magazine was widely dismissed and nicknamed 'Goebbel’s Gazette' on the shopfloor; its editors published a 'jokey' response,

Did you know that 'X' is being called Goebbel's Gazette in some quarters?

No I didn't but thank you for bringing it to my Achtung.

Don't get me wrong, but it is propaganda isn't it?

If propaganda is informing everyone on topics which previously were known to only a handful of people, the answer is 'Yes'. We do concentrate on the plus points of the company but so what? Our performance compares favourably with the company's plants anywhere in the world, so why present any other picture?


The intention of managerial joking practices, to reduce conflict and emphasize organizational harmony had the opposite effect of merely reinforcing the polarisation between management and shopfloor. Indeed elements of this corporate culture are often converted into and thereby become part of shopfloor workers' resistance.


Supervisors and bums


When the body was first made all parts wanted to be SUPERVISORS. The Brain insisted. 'Since I control everything and do all the thinking, I should be Supervisor' The Feet said, 'Since we carry man where he wants to go, we should be Supervisors.' The Hands said, 'Since we do all the work and earn all the money to keep the rest of you going, we should be Supervisors.' The Eyes too staked their claim, 'Since we must watch out for all of you, we should be Supervisors.'

And so it went on: the Heart; the Ears and finally... the BUM! How all the other parts laughed to think the Bum should be Supervisor!!! Thus the Bum became mad and refused to function. The Brain became feverish: the Eyes crossed and ached: the Legs got wobbly and the Stomach went sick.

ALL pleaded with the Brain to relent and let the Bum be Supervisor. And so it came to be. That all the other parts did their work and the Bum simply Supervised and passed a load of CRAP


MORAL: You don't have to be a Brain to be a Supervisor - only a Bum.

Source: Trade Union Noticeboard




Burawoy, M. (1979) Manufacturing Consent, Chicago, Chicago University Press.

Burns, T. (1953) 'Friends, enemies and the polite function', American Sociological Review, vol. 18, pp. 65~62.

Coser; R.L. (1959) 'Some social functions of laughter: a study of humour in a hospital setting', Human Relations, vol. 12, pp. 171-82.

Dwyer; T. (1991) 'Humour, power and change in organisations', Human Relations, vol. 44, no. 1, pp. 1-19.

Emerson, J. (1969) 'Negotiating the serious import of humour', Sociometry vol. 32, pp. 169-81.

Emerson, J. (1970) 'Behaviour in private places', in Dreitzel, H.P. (ed.) Recent Sociology, 2, Patterns in Communicative Behaviour, New York, Macmillan.

Fletcher; C. (1974) Beneath the Surface, London, Routledge.

Freud, S. (1976) Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books.

Giddens, A. (1979) Central Problems in Social Theory London, Macmillan.

Goffman, E. (1961) Encounters, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books.

Green, A.E. (1978) 'Only kidding: joking among coal miners', paper presented at the Conference of the British Sociological Association, University of Sussex.

Linstead, S. (1985) 'Breaking the "purity rule": industrial sabotage and the symbolic process', Personnel Review, vol. 14, no. 3, pp. 12-19.

Lyman, P (1987) 'The fraternal bond as a joking relation: a case study of the role of sexist jokes in the male group bonding', in Kimmel, M. (ed.) Changing Men: New Directions in Research on Men and Masculinity London, Sage.

Pitt, M. (1979) The World On Our Backs, London, Lawrence and Wishart.

Pollert, A. (1981) Girls, Wives, Factory Lives, London, Macmillan.

Radcliffe-Brown, A. (1940) 'On joking relationships', Africa, vol. 19, pp. 133-140.

Willis, P.E. (1977) Learning to Labour; London, Saxon House.

Wilson, C.P (1979) Jokes: Form, Content, Use and Function, London, Academic Press.

Zijderveld, A.C. (1968) Jokes and their relation to social reality', Social Research, vol. 35, pp. 286-311.

[1] Goffman (1961) argues, 'The right to make a joke of something is often restricted to the ranking person present' (1961, p. 58).


[2] One story embedded in shopfloor folklore concerned the flowline production department. On one occasion, only after a lorry chassis had been assembled was it realised by the workforce that in the middle stood a stanchion of the building. 'Management went mad', I was told with delight by different manual workers on several occasions.