Here’s a report from Women in IP committee member Isobel Barry, about their 27 August coffee dates. These informal discussions tackled the potentially thorny topic of office banter, and as you can see, yielded some fascinating insights. Virtually everyone will find useful advice in this report.
The Women in IP coffee meet-ups have to go on the list of things that are working better in our new home office world. Where previously we could only reach people in one city, and the spaces we could meet in lent themselves more to relaxed chat than to focussed facilitated discussion, since March I have been enjoying meeting new people via Zoom and learning about all sorts of different perspectives and experiences. Please do come along to the next event. These are open to anybody working in IP: any gender, any location in the UK and Ireland!
For our August 2020 coffee morning we chose the topic of banter, partially inspired by an excellent workshop held at the IP Inclusive conference at the beginning of the year. We talked through three questions:
- What do you think are the pros and cons of banter in the workplace? Do you have positive or negative examples that you have observed?
- Do you have any tips for dealing with unwelcome banter when directed at yourself or someone else?
- Does our current working from home situation change the effects of banter and how it should be dealt with?
Thanks to our fantastic hosts we had a number of events happening simultaneously across the country. An overview of the various discussions follows.
1. What do you think are the pros and cons of banter in the workplace? Do you have positive or negative examples that you have observed?
It was generally agreed that banter is part of the normal human and social interaction and how we develop relationships and connect on a personal level, getting to know the attitudes and opinions of others. It can build rapport and camaraderie, and can provide light relief in a stressful job. Some workplaces have a strong culture of banter and there were very positive reports from participants about these. Some people can use banter and humour to get things done effectively.
One group found themselves discussing how to start and enable banter in a workplace where it is not common. Self-deprecating humour was an example of a safe way to start and see if others feel comfortable adding more in a joking environment: if a colleague reciprocates with similar humour they may be more open to slowly introducing banter. This might be particularly useful for someone joining in a more senior capacity who wants to introduce a more relaxed dialogue with colleagues. This relies on trust so has to be built up gradually to ensure that it is perceived as both harmless and based on an intention to be friendlier with one another.
Of course, when banter crosses the line that is very problematic. This can happen when banter is too personal, is overly sarcastic, or when a running joke goes on well past its welcome. One has to pay close attention to keep in mind where the line is, and it can be crossed even with good intentions. What might be appropriate between peers quickly becomes inappropriate when coming from a line manager. In addition, different individuals react to banter differently; some people might react differently depending on where their head is in that moment, and some people may not speak up if they are unhappy. In extreme cases, people may simply leave the company. The fact that different people react differently to banter was discussed as being very important: the workplace needs to work for everyone and a one-size-fits-all culture is not compatible with inclusion and diversity.
Even when not crossing a line, banter can make people feel excluded if they are not “in” on the jokes. One person gave the example when doing her PhD of the supervisor only having banter with the male students and not the female ones. He probably thought he was doing the right thing, but actually the women felt excluded. One also needs to be careful of people coming from different backgrounds, and perhaps not understanding “in” jokes of a specific variety.
2. Do you have any tips for dealing with unwelcome banter when directed at yourself or someone else?
One of the most powerful responses to unwelcome banter directed at oneself was seen to be the jokey retort to make it clear the other person has or is about to cross your line, and potentially (when banter is personal) an indication that the joke is unoriginal and you’ve heard it all before. Another option, if someone makes a joke you don’t find funny, is asking them to explain the joke (eg “What do you mean?”, “I don’t understand”, “Sorry, why is that funny?”). If you are not able to speak up in the moment, it can be powerful to say something a couple of days later – it shows you are still thinking about it, which is almost certainly not that person’s intention.
Many people confessed an instinct to simply laugh it off, which is not objectively the best reaction, but may be OK if the incident is just a one-off. Some people are wary of giving back banter in response in case it, in turn, is received badly. It was generally agreed that it is preferable if we are strong enough to say when we are offended by something. That said, some had found that an indirect approach such as changing the topic can often be understood by the other party as indicating that their tone or comments are not welcome, without any need for awkwardness.
In terms of unwelcome banter directed at another person, we noted that the boundary between unwelcome and friendly banter is determined by the person on the receiving end so it can be hard for others to judge. That said, there can be clear signs if someone is unhappy. Options for dealing with this include the following:
- Checking with the “banteree” later to see how they felt about it, even if they seemed fine at the time. This should be done carefully as it could make the situation worse.
- Mentioning to the “banterer” that what they said may have been near the line of what was welcome or not, and to bear in mind that others may not have appreciated those comments, even if the person was fine with it (easier to do with a peer or someone more junior – very hard to do to someone more senior). People shared examples of when they had successfully done this.
- Engendering a culture of speaking up.
- Bringing up the broader situation with a line manager, if there is an ongoing situation that is making somebody uncomfortable.
3. Does our current working from home situation change the effects of banter and how it should be dealt with?
Broadly, our experience was that there was much less banter: specifically, there is less positive banter and no one had experienced negative banter. In some cases, this was because interactions are more stilted, many interactions tend towards the perfunctory, and people were running out of things to talk about since people had not been up to much at the weekends! Others felt that although interactions were still personal, a reduction in banter probably resulted from the fact that it is harder to “read the room” and interpret body language, so we are playing it safer. Everyone would be extremely cautious about using banter in writing given the ease of misinterpretation.
Many said that one-to-one video chats have built strong relationships with people who did not previously know each other well, but these have been done in a mostly serious fashion without banter. There were multiple reports that people have got to know their colleagues much better over the last few months and learned more about them than when working in the normal office environment, along with positive reports of improved client relationships now that video calls are the norm. One group observed that there is more banter at the beginning of each meeting, whether internal or with clients, which presumably is replacing the chats that used to occur by the coffee machine, at the photocopier or in the lift.
One big focus was the difficulty in building new relationships remotely, and in bringing new people into established groups with their in-jokes and particular dynamics. We will need to become more intentional about this as the situation continues. Many people strongly miss the office environment and the associated noise and banter, and can’t wait to be back. Nevertheless, we cannot expect anything like a return to normal office life this winter, so when the dark mornings and evenings hit we need to keep our focus on enlivening interactions with others, even if not in person. With a bit of thought and intention, we will get through this all together!