Develop a humour language

In-jokes and shared humour history create stronger teams, so how do you going about creating that much-needed, if invisible, commodity?


‘I’ll tell you what I want; what I really, really want’... that’s the hook – the bit of a pop song that everybody knows. You find yourself singing or humming it all day long. The hook. Movies do it too – the line or two that infiltrates the consciousness of an entire society.

  • To infinity and beyond
  • We’re not worthy
  • May the force be with you

They’re all hooks. Stand-up comedians and other performers have catch phrases –

  • Nice to see you, to see you nice
  • Never touched me
  • Shut that door
  • It’s just a puppet!

Hook, hook, hook! Advertising companies use slogans:

  • Naughty but nice
  • Don’t leave home without it
  • I’m loving it
  • Reaches the parts that other beers don’t...

Multi-media advertisers in their genius combine musical hooks, celebrities, and slogans to send us out in a zombie-like state to buy, buy, buy.

We all do it!

Language ought to be the joint creation of poets and manual workers.

George Orwell

Every workplace will have developed its own set of hooks. Often, they are three letter abbreviations: shortcuts that anyone outside that industry or office would not understand. Our everyday speech is peppered with codes and passwords that only our friends, family and co–workers understand. This instinctive method of increasing communication can be honed and cultivated.


We can learn from the romantics. People who care deeply for each other develop special sayings. In the film Ghost, Demi Moore would say ‘I love you’ and Patrick Swayze would respond ‘Ditto’. The code was so strong that they could communicate from beyond the grave. Demi’s character knew exactly what he meant because the code had developed over the years. The word ‘ditto’ conjured the history of their relationship – the thick and thin, the commitment. It was consistent and comforting. It was their in-joke.


A workplace can develop and cultivate hooks and embed them into everyday business life. We already do this to certain extent, but being conscious of it and working at it strengthens the process. Most rewards will be reaped if we develop and cultivate hooks that have a positive history, a shared humour. Their growth should be organic.

  • When something funny happens, retelling it is the beginning of developing a hook.
  • We must also recognise that by its very nature an in-joke will exclude other people.
  • The hook may be funny to begin with, but in time it becomes simply humorous – part of a shared happiness habit.
Case study

A call centre in Scotland developed a hook concerning eggs. Operators sat at terminals all day, separated by moveable walls. One day one of them was summoned to the boss’s office – she said ‘I feel like I’m walking on egg shells’. Her co–worker replied ‘Don’t get scrambled’. Laughter erupted. And they were off. Up and down the cubicle maze came ‘You’ll be whipped’, ‘I hope you like to be beaten’, ‘He’s gonna crack you’, ‘It’s all because you’re fluffy’, ‘This is no yolk’, ‘Eggs–actly what does he want’... Apparently the gang of them were in stitches passing along the messages, getting more and more silly, one-upping each other. They had established a hook.

Better yet, they kept at it. Over the next few days the egg jokes continued, but as with all hooks, the laughter gradually faded. Fortunately, they instinctively kept at it. They worked through and past that period when ‘If I hear that song one more time, I’ll go up the wall’. They let it get stale and then revived it. When they did, there weren’t the gales of laughter – there was the common knowledge that they were comrades on the same team and spoke the same language.

You don’t have to laugh out loud; you can smile on the inside and share the humour history. It was consistent and comforting. It was their in-joke.

Humorous terms

Nicknames for duties or business procedures are also hooks. They can also occur outside the team. It is a wonderful rapport builder to use new language with a colleague. In business, this language is as fickle as pop music, constantly evolving. Learning the lingo can give you the upper edge in your dealings with others.

If you know what’s in the charts, you are more likely to have a number one seller.

This week’s top ten

Below are some business terms that raise a smile:

  1. Blamestorming – sitting around in a group, discussing why a deadline was missed or a project failed, and who was responsible
  2. Mouse potato – the on–line, wired generation’s answer to the couch potato
  3. SITCOMs – Single Income, Two Children, Oppressive Mortgage; this is what yuppies turn into when they have children and one of them stops working to stay home with the kids or start a ‘home business’. They can no longer relate to their DINK friends. (Double Income, No Kids). The children may in time become KIPPERS (Kids In Parents’ Pockets Eroding Retirement Savings), if they live at home after 18.
  4. Seagull manager – a manager who flies in, makes a lot of noise, craps on everything and then leaves
  5. Stress puppy – a person who seems to thrive on being stressed out and whiney
  6. Assmosis – the process by which some people seem to absorb success and advancement by kissing up to the boss rather than working hard
  7. 404 – someone who is clueless; this comes from the World Wide Web error message ‘404 Not Found’, meaning that the requested document could not be located.
  8. Percussive maintenance – the fine art of whacking an electronic device to get it to work again (a technique favoured by 404s)
  9. Salmon day – the experience of spending an entire day swimming upstream only to get screwed and die in the end
  10. Adminisphere – the rarefied organisational layers beginning just above the common worker; decisions that fall from the adminisphere are often profoundly inappropriate or irrelevant to the problems they were designed to solve. This is often affiliated with the dreaded ‘administrivia’ of needless paperwork and processes.
Case study

Have you heard the one about the marriage counsellors?

They had weekly meetings where they would compare notes, offer advice to each other and generally discuss each case.

One week...

They identified a challenge. One problem that recurred in their clients’ marriages was infidelity. Seems that, despite their professional training, their human side would sit in judgement on the partner who was being untrue, particularly in cases that were not their own and where they didn’t have the whole picture. They didn’t want to be judgemental; they felt they could help more with a totally professional attitude.

Soon after...

One of the counsellors started their meeting with a joke. It went like this...

Three guys die and go to heaven. (No groaning please, it illustrates the point!) They get to the Pearly Gates and St Peter says to the first guy ‘So tell me about yourself’.

‘Well, I was a pillar of society. I was a wonderful father and husband, always there for my kids, big birthday parties, drove them to swimming and ballet, never unfaithful to my wife, never missed an anniversary.’

St Peter said ‘Excellent, you can have a Mercedes Benz to drive around for eternity.’

Second guy steps up and St Peter says to him ‘So tell me about yourself.’

‘Well, I was all right. I remembered most of my kids’ birthdays, and there was only that one time when I was out of town on a conference...’

‘Mmm’ said St Peter, ‘You can have a Ford Sierra to drive around for eternity.’

Third guy ‘Kids? Not even sure how many I’ve got, let alone their birthdays. Anything in a skirt, I chased.’

‘You can have a three-wheeler Reliant Robin to drive around for eternity’ said St Peter (that’s if Heaven is in Britain – if Heaven is in America he said ‘You can have a 1986 Gremlin, the one with the exploding gas tank, to drive around for eternity.’).

So time goes on, eternity is passing and one day the guy in the Reliant Robin/Gremlin meets up with the guy in the Mercedes. And the guy in the beautiful Benz is really depressed, really upset.

‘What is your problem,’ says the guy in the Robin ‘You have the best car in the world to drive around for eternity.’

‘Yeah,’ says the guy in the Benz, ‘But I just saw my wife – she’s on roller skates!’

This in-joke, pertinent to their work, had the marriage counsellors rolling in the aisles. When they reported on the next case, Mr and Mrs Jones, one of them piped up and said; ‘She’s still on skates.’ They laughed again.

They were not laughing at the problem, they were laughing with it, relieving the judgement and the stress. The case was taken lightly, but seriously. From that day forward, the marriage counsellors used the hook ‘on skates’ when referring to infidelity.

This kind of humour is often called operating room humour, or even gallows humour. It is an instinctive survival method.

If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry

This is humour language in practice. It will happen naturally; if it is honed, it will happen productively.