There’s an oddly endearing scene in the second season of the superbly dark Scandinavian crime drama The Bridge, when the emotionally disconnected detective Saga Norén has an unusual outburst of laughter. She tilts her head and out comes a barking, mechanical chuckle ‒ breaking her characteristically intense expression as she reacts to a shared moment of workplace lightness. But Saga is busted immediately; her colleague Martin ‒ who knows her as well as she allows anyone to ‒ points out that it’s obvious when she laughs at something she doesn’t find funny.
A curiously frank and flawed heroine for curiously cynical times, Saga (played by Swedish actress Sofia Helin) was just trying to connect, to fit in with her colleagues and mimic the easy banter of a high-pressure environment. This is not because she felt uncomfortable ‒ her Asperger’s prevents that kind of self-awareness ‒ but because her detective’s senses told her that, for other people, the same behaviour would be perceived as polite.
Insincere but well-intentioned
We’ve all behaved similarly in different scenarios. Insincere, if well-intentioned, expressions of politesse come quite naturally in the business world in particular. The small-talk email greetings: “Dear X, I do hope this email finds you well. Kindly find attached…” (which for me stirs a whole world of semantic and grammatical gripes, but that’s another column). The automatic toothy smiles and enthusiastic handshakes. The ‘How was your holiday?’ chit chat (it’s a boardroom, not a hair salon. And one of us isn’t really listening to the answer).
When it comes to humour especially, the minefield of business etiquette becomes infinitely more tricky to navigate. That funny-slash-ironic presentation slide of Lady Gaga demonstrating Q2 satisfaction ratings, which got so many laughs from your own team, might not go down so well with your client’s dour and deeply conservative executive.
Like Saga Norén, we mirror others’ behaviour not only to fit in and follow established business conventions, but also to be canny. Our displays of polite business behaviour can signal rank and establish power within relationships ‒ often through their omission. Years ago, a colleague warned me about meeting a particular client for the first time: “She doesn’t do small talk. It’s not rude, she’s just really efficient.”
Seeking a GSOH
She turned out to be terribly efficient, sure. And rude. Spectacularly, sincerely rude. But in my then relative inexperience, I simply smiled ‒ insincerely but I think convincingly ‒ through those first meetings as best I could, suppressing my natural urge to lighten the mood, and hopefully endear myself to said client, by making funny remarks or laughing at anything I found vaguely amusing. I now realise this was a reverse Saga style.
Here’s a truth: we form closer working relationships with the colleagues we can have a laugh with. If you don’t ‘get’ each other’s humour, you’ll find it difficult to break the tension of the stressful times with a connecting, humanising, shared bit of comic relief. I’d go so far as to argue that humour is an intrinsic part of the recruitment process; if you’re struggling to choose one potential candidate over another when their skills and experience are equal, put them to the Saga Norén test with a well-timed quip and see how they respond.
Image credit: Creative Commons Auntie K