Leadership and humour at work Using interactional sociolinguistics to explore the role of gender

Stephanie Schnurr and Nor Azikin Mohd Omar


This chapter explores language and gender in the professional domain with a focus on leadership discourse. Leadership is a particularly relevant topic for language and gender research as the notion of leadership is characterised by a male bias (e.g. Martin Rojo and Esteban 2003), and globally prevailing gender stereotypes and expectations - which assume leaders to be white, male, and handsome (e.g. Clifton et al. 2019) - continue to have real- life implications for women and men taking up leadership roles or aspiring to do so. In our analysis of leadership discourse and gender, we focus on humour, which is one of the discursive strategies frequently used by leaders to achieve their various objectives (e.g. Holmes 2007; Schnurr 2009b). As an analytical and methodological approach we employ interactional sociolinguistics (IS), which facilitates the identification of humour as part of a fine-grained analysis of authentic interactional data, while at the same time taking into account the context in which an encounter occurs. In what follows, we first briefly outline some of the recent trends in research on leadership discourse and gender with a particular emphasis on humour, before introducing IS in more detail. We discuss some of the benefits of IS for the study of leadership and humour, and we analyse several examples of authentic leadership discourse to illustrate how IS can be applied, and how it guides, supports, and facilitates our understanding of the role of gender in this context. We end the chapter with a brief discussion of our findings, some remarks for future research, and a list of recommendations for further reading.

Gender, leadership, and humour - a brief overview

Much has been written on leadership and gender, and researchers from different disciplines have repeatedly pointed out that leadership is a gendered concept and that expectations of what is considered to be a good leader and effective leadership are strongly affected by gender stereotypes (e.g. Billing and Alvesson 2000; Holmes 2006; Schnurr 2008). Not only are many of the attributes typically associated with leadership almost synonymous with stereotypical views of masculinity, such as being authoritative, decisive, competitive, goal-oriented, hard-nosed etc. (Holmes 2006: 34), but the mantra ‘think leader - think male’ (Koenig et al. 2011) seems to prevail despite research that celebrates other, ‘more feminine' ways of doing leadership (e.g. Baxter 2010; Chesterman et al. 2005). However, these ‘other’ ways of doing leadership, which centre around collaboration, cooperation, empathy, and long-term thinking - attributes stereotypically associated with femininity - are often only perceived as valuable when displayed by men (Baxter 2012; Singh and Vinnicombe 2002). Yet, they tend to be overlooked or regarded as something else (and less valuable) than leadership when displayed by women (Fletcher 2001; Rutherford 2001; Sinclair 1998). Thus, although considerable evidence gathered in numerous studies on leadership and gender in different sociocultural contexts shows that no direct link exists between gender and actual leadership performance, these stereotypes prevail, and men and women tend to be perceived very differently to the extent that the same behaviour is often evaluated differently (e.g. Fletcher 2004; Holmes 2006; Schnurr 2009b). Moreover, in spite of an increase in the number of women in leadership positions worldwide (according to the latest OECD (2016) report, there is a 20% increase on average of women in leadership positions1), still only a very limited set of roles are available to women leaders, which heavily draw on and thus reinforce gender stereotypes by categorising women leaders as either a mother, a seductress, an iron maiden, or a pet (Baxter 2012, 2017; Kanter 1977). All these observations point to the fact that in spite of recent positive developments in terms of increasing visibility of women in more senior positions, and the often cited feminisation of leadership or ‘female advantage’ of doing leadership in some industries (Eagly and Carli 2003; Fletcher 2004), women remain disadvantaged - both in terms of accessing leadership positions and in terms of how they are being perceived and evaluated for their leadership work.

Leadership and humour

Among the various strategies that have been described as indexing leadership, humour is receiving a considerable amount of attention (e.g. Avolio et al. 1999; Collinson 2006; Holmes 2007; Holmes and Marra2006; Hoption et al. 2013; Rogerson-Revell2011; Schnurr 2009a, 2009b; Schnurr and Chan 2009, 2011, 2017). This continued interest in this discursive strategy is perhaps not surprising given its versatility and complexity. Humour has been found to be a valuable tool to assist those in leadership positions to achieve several leadership objectives, such as getting things done, motivating the team, solving conflicts and managing disagreements, creating group-cohesiveness, and making criticisms more palatable, etc. For example, conducting case studies of six leaders in three internet technology (IT) companies in New Zealand, Schnurr (2009b) illustrates how humour may assist those in leadership positions to achieve various transactional and relational objectives - sometimes even simultaneously. Similarly, Mullany (2004) explores how meeting chairs use humour when attempting to gain their subordinates’ compliance in managerial business meetings recorded in two businesses in the UK. Rogerson-Revell (2011) analyses the role of humour with regard to the leadership styles displayed by chairs of meetings in international business meetings in large corporations in Hong Kong and the EU. Holmes and Marra (2006) also illustrate the multiple functions that humour may perform with regard to leadership, and discuss the ways in which the leaders’ use of humour contributes to and reflects specific aspects of their leadership styles. They argue that humour is particularly useful for the performance of leadership as it enables the leaders to exercise both power and politeness - often at the same time. They provide several examples to show that ‘ [sjkillful leaders recognise the transformational potential of humour, as well as its value in helping achieve transactional objectives, and they exploit its varied functions to create team, smooth ruffled feathers and generate creative energy’ (Holmes and Marra 2006: 133). They argue that the ways in which the leaders (and their subordinates) use humour is a reflection (and at the same time active contribution) to the culture of their workplaces (see also Schnurr 2009b).

Humour and gender

Humour is not only a valuable tool for leaders, but, like the concept of leadership, it is also heavily affected by gender stereotypes. Among the most common gender stereotypes are the claims that women often ‘don’t get a joke’, that they use and appreciate humour less than men (Kotthoff 2006: 2), and that they prefer different types of humour (Tannen 1994). For example, in an early study on a group of white, middle-class American mothers who regularly meet, Jenkins (1985) claims that the humour used by these women is cooperative, supportive, inclusive, self-healing, integrated, and spontaneous, while the humour produced by men is more exclusive, challenging, pre-formulated, and self-aggrandising. Similar trends were observed by Hay (2000) who analysed the humour of men and women in informal friendship groups in New Zealand. Like Jenkins (1985), she also observed considerable gender differences and found the women to employ humour more frequently than the men to create solidarity, whereas men used it more often to ‘highlight similarities or capitalise on shared experiences’ (Hay 2000: 734). Interestingly, she found no noticeable differences in the extent to which the women and men in her sample used teasing. Tannen (1994: 72), drawing on various studies, also argued that '[t]he types of humor men and women tend to prefer differ’. While men predominantly use ‘razzing, teasing, and mock-hostile attacks’, women mainly employed self-denigrating humour (Tannen 1994: 72-73).

Research on humour and gender in the workplace is relatively recent (for an exception see Tannen 1994), and most of these more recent studies challenge the findings of earlier research on gender stereotypes regarding the use of humour in friendship groups. For example, Mullany (2004: 13) obseived that in contrast to the stereotype of humourless women, the female chairs in her study frequently used repressive humour (i.e. humour thr ough which the speaker exercises (often subtle) control) ‘as a mitigation strategy to attempt to gain the compliance of their subordinates’, while the male chairs did not adopt this strategy at all. Similarly, in a study of two female leaders in small factory outlets in Hong Kong, Ladegaard (2012) reports evidence of the women regularly using jocular abuse to maintain their hierarchical position in the workplace. These observations challenge earlier claims about the supportive, collaborative, self-denigrating, and inclusive nature of women’s humour. For instance, Holmes (2006: 40), analysed the occurrence of humour in over 20 meetings in private and governmental organisations in New Zealand and found no evidence for gender differences. She rather observed ‘that both women and men used conjoint humour support- ively, to elaborate or expand a previous contribution, and contestively, to challenge another’s humorous assertion’. However, despite these similarities in men’s and women's use of humour, Holmes also observed that in meetings where women were present, supportive conjoint humour tended to occur more frequently, while contestive joined humour was more typically used in meetings which involved men. All these studies thus point to inconclusive evidence about gender differences, and, as Kotthoff (2006: 3) succinctly maintains, ‘there are more similarities than differences in the humor of women and men’. These observations are in line with Kendall’s statement that ‘[situations in which women and men consciously choose language options to create femininity or masculinity are rare. In contrast, women and men do consciously choose language to best fulfill their roles as managers’ (2004: 76). Our examples below illustrate precisely this.

Moving on from these initial studies which often compared how men and women use humour in a particular context, more recent smdies focus on how the use of humour is gendered and how humour may be used by interlocutors to put gender on the agenda and to make often hidden gender stereotypes visible. For example, Schnurr and Holmes (2009) and Holmes and Schnurr (2014) investigated how masculinity and femininity are enacted, reflected, manifested, and sometimes challenged in participants’ use of humour in the workplace. Rather than comparing the discursive behaviour of men and women, they explore some of ‘the ways in which gender and humor intersect in workplace interaction’ (Holmes and Schnurr 2014: 165) and how both men and women utilise humour to ‘do gender’, thereby negotiating their professional and their gender identities.

But despite these recent trends, which reject treating men and women as homogenous groups, gender stereotypes about women’s use of humour, and their abilities to lead, seem to prevail in workplaces around the world (e.g. Clifton et al. 2019; Holmes 2006). This chapter explores this stereotypical perception by further discussing the complex relationship between gender, leadership, and humour. Drawing on authentic workplace interactions collected in a range of different workplaces in New Zealand, the UK and Malaysia, we analyse some of the ways in which humour is used by those in leadership positions, in order to critically explore the role of gender. However, in contrast to much previous research, our particular interest in this chapter is methodological, and we aim to illustrate some of the benefits of using IS to inquire into the complexities of leadership, humour, and gender.

Interactional sociolinguistics as an approach to analyse leadership, humour, and gender

IS is one of the major theoretical approaches to discourse analysis (Holmes 2014: 177). It was pioneered by the anthropologist Gumperz. IS is a well-established framework that is frequently used in the field of sociolinguistics for inquiries into actual language use in specific situations and sociocultural contexts. In contrast to some other discourse analytical approaches, such as conversation analysis, it pays particular attention to the ways in which societal and interactive forces merge in specific communicative practices (Clifton et al. 2019; Gumperz 2003; Vine et al. 2008: 345).

The main aim of IS is to discover how social meaning is negotiated in interactions. This is usually achieved through ethnographic observations and interviews (Gumperz 2003; Holmes 2014: 179), as well as by an analysis of audio- or video-recorded interactions (Bailey 2008). Based on the analysts’ knowledge of the specific community (and its norms) in which an interaction occurs, interlocutors’ relationships, and the context, analysts make informed presuppositions about meaning (Gumperz 2003; Holmes 2014; Vine et al. 2008). These interpretive assessments build on local or context-specific background knowledge, i.e. 'taken-for-granted background assumptions that underlie the negotiation of shared interpretations’ (Gumperz 1999: 454).

Central to IS are the concepts of conversational inferencing and contextualisation cues (Gumperz 2003), which capture the processes through which interlocutors signal and interpret meaning in social interactions (Bailey 2008). Conversational inference refers to the interpretive procedure by which interlocutors assess what is communicatively intended at any point in an exchange, and on which they rely to plan and produce their responses (Gumperz 2003). An example of this is the sequential positioning of turns (Gumperz 1982: 131) - such as what comes before and after a humorous instance, i.e. what triggers the humour and how it is responded to, which are important for an understanding of what makes a particular utterance humorous and what functions it performs at the specific point in the interaction where it occurs. Contextualisation cues, on the other hand, are those linguistic and paralinguistic features that contribute to the signalling of contextual presuppositions. For example, in order to mark and understand a particular utterance as humorous, interlocutors draw on specific verbal and nonverbal cues, such as laughter, a smile, and a raised eyebrow, as well as a change in pitch, tone of voice, and speed of delivery (c.f. Hay 2001; Schnurr and Chan 2011).

As we demonstrate in more detail in the next section, in actual analysis, IS draws on and combines both a fine-grained analysis of interaction and the analysts’ knowledge and interpretation of the specific context in which the interaction occurs. When using IS to analyse a particular excerpt of an interaction, researchers look at what people say but also at how they say it. More specifically, they note not only who makes a humorous comment, gives an instruction, or makes an apology, but they also describe the discursive processes through which these acts are realised. For example, what pronouns are used, whether laughter occurs (and where), whether there are any pauses, hesitations, restarts, and - importantly for humour - in what tone of voice a particular remark was uttered. This information about the micro-level of an interaction is then combined with the researcher’s knowledge of the macro-level (e.g. about the relationship among participants, how long they have worked together, and the context in which an utterance occurs). Through this combination insights are gained into how meaning is constructed and negotiated among interlocutors as their interaction unfolds (Holmes et al. 2011: 21).

Due to its ability to combine the micro and the macro in meaningful ways, IS is an excellent framework for an analysis of gender, leadership, and humour. It provides the analysts with the discursive tools to identify and describe the specific discursive processes through which humour is produced and responded to in an interaction, while at the same time allowing the analysts to relate these micro-level observations to the macro-level concepts of gender and leadership. It thus facilitates the operationalisation of these relatively abstract concepts, and provides a frame in which they can be identified and traced throughout an interaction, as we illustrate in the next section.

Leadership, humour, and gender in action

For our analysis, we have chosen four instances of humour to illustrate some of the complexities of leadership and gender. More specifically, we look at how humour is used to display various behaviours associated with leadership, such as getting things done, criticising subordinates and telling them what to do, giving feedback, reinforcing solidarity, and building rapport. The examples come from different interactional contexts - including small and large meetings, an email, and a range of related WhatsApp messages - and different sociocultural contexts - including New Zealand, the UK, and Malaysia. This diversity is deliberate as we want to show that the use of humour, and its relationship with leadership and gender, is not a local phenomenon that is tied to a particular sociocultural context, but rather that it can be (and indeed has been) observed in many different contexts. In line with recent developments in language and gender research (see Eckert and Podesva, this volume), the starting point of our analysis is not the question of whether there are differences in the ways in which men and women use humour to do leadership, but rather whether gender is relevant to the ongoing interaction,2 and if so, in what ways.

Getting things done

Example 1 (from Schnurr 2009b)3

Context: A small meeting of three colleagues in an IT department at a New Zealand organisation. All participants are IT managers on the same hierarchical level within the organisation, but Noel chairs the meeting and is in charge of this particular project.

  • 1. Noel: you ’re dearly the most important person
  • 2. Isabelle: oh definitely
  • 3. Patrick: cool do I get veto rights
  • 4. Noel: [voc] well yes but you get to do all the work as [laughs]: well:
  • 5. Patrick: oh (great what a move up)

This is a good example to show how humour can assist people to get things done, which is one of the activities associated with leadership (e.g. Schnurr and Mak 2011). The relevant humour in this extract occurs in the form of two witty one-liners (lines 1 and 4) that are uttered by Noel towards his colleague Patrick to remind him of the responsibilities that come with his special role in a project that they are working on. Noel's repeated use of the second singular personal pronoun 'you' illustrates this allocation of responsibilities. There are several contextualisation cues that mark this brief exchange as humorous, including tone of voice and laughter. The first witty one-liner, in which Patrick is singled out as 'most important’ (line 1), is responded to with agreement from Isabelle and is continued with a witty remark by Patrick himself (line 3), who plays along with it by tongue-in-cheek asking for ‘veto rights’ as a reward for his important role in the project. This humorous comment, in turn, is responded to by Noel, who teasingly reminds his colleague that his special position also comes with certain obligations and responsibilities, and that Patrick is in fact expected ‘to do all the work as well’ (line 4). The utterance-final laughter produced by Noel is the only laughter that occurs in this brief exchange, and it could be interpreted as an attempt to mitigate his transactional message (i.e. reminding his colleague Patrick of his duties and thereby eventually ensuring that things are getting done). Looking at the ways in which interlocutors skilfully pick up and expand the humour, we find further support in the form of conversational inferencing that they conjointly interpret this instance as humorous. The humorous sequence comes to an end with Patrick’s perhaps slightly ironic remark (line 5) in which he acknowledges his additional responsibility and makes fun of it, while at the same time acknowledging that he has understood the underlying serious message.

Addressing the aim of this chapter and exploring whether gender is (or is not) explicitly relevant in the use of humour by those in leadership positions, there is no marker (or contextualisation cue) in the above excerpt that indicates that gender plays a role here. Although Noel’s use of teasing could perhaps be associated with masculinity, the bonding style in which it is delivered (see also Schnurr 2009a) could in turn be associated with femininity. This example thus illustrates that while leaders often use humour, in contrast to stereotypical perceptions and expectations, gender is not necessarily an issue. Rather, there is plenty of evidence in our data from different workplaces in New Zealand, the UK, and Malaysia of witty one-liners used by those in leadership positions - both men and women - to get things done by reminding people of their responsibilities or making sure they are aware of what is expected of them (see Schnurr 2009b for more examples). Sometimes they do this by drawing on speech elements traditionally associated with masculinity - such as Noel’s teasing - and at other times they display behaviours indexed for femininity -such as the overall bonding style in which the teasing is delivered. Thus, by using humour (in whatever form or style) to convey these potentially critical and possibly even face-threatening messages, while at the same time mitigating the illocutionary force of the utterance (that is, ‘soften the blow’) and reinforcing solidarity (e.g. Schnurr 2009b) as Noel does in the example above, the speakers primarily do leadership, and gender takes a backseat (cf. Kendall 2004).

We discuss one more example here to show how humour may be used to get things done by criticising subordinates and telling them what to do by overruling the group’s previous decision. In the next example, the person in a leadership position is a woman, and some of the behaviours she displays are traditionally associated with masculinity.

Criticising subordinates and telling them what to do Example 24 5 6

Context: This exchange occurred during a WhatsApp7 interaction among a group of academics at an institute of Higher Education in Malaysia. All members are academic colleagues and Zana is the head of department. At this point in the interaction Zana (who was absent during the previous 1,645 posts) joins the discussion which took place over approximately four hours, which is partly due to a delayed response time between posts.

  • 1646) 14/02/2016, 10:17pm- Zana: ellooo!!
  • 1647) 14/02/2016, 10:17 pm- Zana: bin bole lyn wasap

just got the chance to look at wasap

  • 1648) 14/02/2016, 10:17 pm- Zana: 140 mesej!! lmng soheh grup ni penuh kontroversi
  • 140 messages!! it is certain that this grup is controversial
  • 1649) 14/02/2016, 10:18 pm- Zana: kita x leh dgr dri stduts jer

we cannot hear from the stdnts only

  • 1650) 14/02/2016, 10:18 pm- Zana: find out properly
  • 1651) 14/02/2016, 10:19 pm- Zana: sometimes, thngs likeths can be blown out of


  • 1652) 14/02/2016, 10:19 pm- Zana: be rationale people!! о о
  • 1653) 14/02/2016, 10:49 pm- Wani: Jk JkJk
  • 1654) 14/02/2016, 10:53 pm- Zana: klu mmg betul citer ni, bru kita gi ganyang GB


if this story is true, then we will ‘beat up'the headmaster together

  • 1655) 14/02/2016, 10:54pm- Wani: Dr. Eusofwill investigate...
  • 1656) 14/02/2016, 10:55 pm- Zana: sherlock Holmes
  • 1657) 14/02/2016, 11:20 pm- Eusof: W
  • 1658) 15/02/2016, 6:48 am- Sarah: Heheheh

Like the previous example, this excerpt further illustrates how humour may be skilfully used to do power, while at the same time creating solidarity among team members. Like in the example above, gender is not explicitly made relevant here, although Zana, the female leader of the team, employs a range of discursive features associated with masculinity when doing humour.

With the rather informal greeting ‘ellooo!!’ (line 1646) Zana, the head of department and one of the most senior members of the team, joins the discussion of her team on WhatsApp. Her greeting resembles that between friends rather than colleagues (especially with its informal spelling (dropping of initial letter 'h' and lengthened vowels throughout) and the two exclamation marks at the end). These relatively informal and collegial behaviours could be ascribed to a feminine speech style. However, Zana then swiftly and without much ado moves on to her transactional agenda, namely to criticise the team for an unnecessarily long discussion (cf. her remarks about the number of messages followed by two utterance-final exclamation marks in line and her use of the term 'controversial’ (line 1648)), and the team’s one-sided gathering of information (i.e. taking students’ complaints at face value without consulting the respective school for their view (line 1649)). What is noteworthy about Zana’s interactional style here is its relative directness and hence potential face-threat to her subordinates, which are behaviours stereotypically associated with masculinity (e.g. Holmes 2006). This directness of her messages is reflected in several contextualisation cues, including her frequent use of exclamation marks (lines 1651 and lines 1652), the absence of a personal pronoun (line 1650), and her directive (line 1652). However, at the same time, it is somewhat mitigated by her use of the inclusive pronoun 'we’ (line 1650), her non-standard spellings (lines 1650, 1651), and the use of two laughing emojis at the end of her seven consecutive messages (line 1652). The emojis could mitigate the potential face-threat of her previous utterances but also act as contextualisation cues which reframe the tone of the interaction as friendly rather than strictly professional, and which open up a humorous context (Darics 2017) and perhaps even invite the subsequent development of conjoint humour among the other team members.

In terms of conversational inferencing, it is important to note that Wani’s thumbs-up emojis in line 1653 may signal not only that she has understood and taken on board Zana’s criticism, but they also continue the humour, as does Zana's tongue-in-cheek reply about beating up the headmaster 'if this story is true’. Using fantasy humour here to describe the team’s potential (clearly non-serious) actions, she expresses solidarity with her subordinates and bonds with them by making fun of the absent headmaster of the school that is causing the trouble (line 1654). In particular, her reference to a joint future action (‘together’) performs this bonding function, which - just like criticising subordinates and telling people what to do - has also been associated with leadership (e.g. Schnurr 2009b; Wodak et al. 2011). The humorous tone of her posts is then picked up and continued by other members of the team. First, Wani teases Eusof by referring to him as ‘Dr Eusof’ and portraying him as a detective who will 'investigate' matters (line 1655). This fantasy humour is continued by Zana who mentions the famous fictional detective 'sherlock Holmes’ (line 1656) thereby implicitly making a link between Eusof and this fictional character. Although he is the butt of the humour, Eusof responds positively (with an emoji that is laughing so hard it is crying (line 1657)). This in turn is responded to by Sarah, who produces some orthographic laughter (line 1658). The humour comes to an end and people discuss more serious matters (not shown here).

Using humour in this short exchange, then, enables Zana to exercise her power and authority as the head of department and to be the one who is able to overturn a decision made by the team in a way that reinforces solidarity and contributes to bonding among interlocutors. She thereby gains her subordinates’ compliance rather than threatening their faces and generating resistance. While these semiotic resources are claimed to have positive implications on the mood of a discussion, this example has shown that discursive strategies such as emoji, informal spellings (‘grup' for ‘group’), and abbreviation (‘thngs likeths’) are also useful to attenuate the illocutionary force of potentially threatening speech acts like directives and disagreement; at the same time they act as important contextualisation cues and facilitate conversational inferencing for the researcher and participants to interpret this exchange as humorous. Moreover, these strategies also allow Zana to exercise her authority and establish a sense of solidarity with her subordinates. Thus, although IS analyses of digital communication focus on different features than IS analyses of spoken interactions, some of these semiotic resources are actually reminiscent of the characteristics of spoken interaction. For example, emojis pexform similar functions to facial expressions and tone of voice, while non-standard spellings could be interpreted as non-standard pronunciation.

Looking at Example 2 in relation to Example 1, it is noteworthy that although they occurred in different sociocuhural contexts, different professional industries, and were produced by different individuals in leadership positions - one male, one female - there are some remarkable similarities with regard to the use of humour. Both leaders draw on humour to combine transactional and relational behaviours, and both display behaviours indexed for masculinity (such as directness, and the exercise of power) as well as behaviours typically associated with femininity (such as bonding, creating solidarity, and mitigating negatively affective speech acts).

Giving feedback

Example 3 (from Schnurr 2009b)

Context: At an IT company in New Zealand. Gerry is the mentor to several graduates who have recently joined the company. At this meeting Gerry is giving feedback to a group of graduates who are working on a particular task with which they are experiencing some difficulties.

  • 1. Gerry: [teasing tone of voice] : there’s a really easy answer to this
  • 2. and I'm not gonna tell you what it is :
  • 3. Hank: oh you [laughs]
  • 4. Magnus: [laughs]

The relatively short humour in this example takes the form of teasing, which is a particularly ambiguous type of humour (e.g. Alberts 1992; Schnurr 2009a). The teasing tone of voice in which this short remark is uttered sets it up as playful and non-serious. This contextualisation cue is picked up by the audience as Hank’s and Magnus’ supportive responses indicate. Hank plays along with Gerry’s teasing by pretending to be upset (line 3). He continues the playful, mocking tone and produces some utterance-final laughter, which is then mirrored by Magnus in the next utterance (line 4).

Using humour in this context enables Gerry to encourage his mentees and provide some (at this stage largely moral rather than technical) support, while at the same time also reinforcing his own status and authority as the expext. Moreover, the laughter that his humour triggers generates a welcome opportunity to release some tension and take a break - even if only momentarily - from the difficult task (Glenn 2003). Like in the exaxnples above, however, there is no indication - in the foxm of a contextualisation cue or conversational inferencing - that points to the explicit relevance of gexxder in this exchange. Rather, the perhaps more-biting style of the teasing (compared to Noel’s more bonding style (cf. Example 1)) could be explained by reference to the different workplace cultures in which these exchanges took place (see also Schnurr 2009a). Comparing Examples 1, 2, and 3 in particular further illustrates that there is considerable variation and diversity in which leaders - male or female - use humour to do leadership. But there is clearly no preferred style by either men or women. The next example further illustrates this by showcasing an example of humour that is constructed by largely drawing on linguistic features indexed for femininity. This instance of humour occurred in an email.

Reinforcing solidarity and building rapport Example 4s

Context: Email between two colleagues at a higher education institution in the UK.

Hi Rebecca

Well done on getting this sorted. Can I just check that you have confirmed this allocation with all available parties, i.e. LMM! (Sure you have....)

For my part I have phoned Alma and reallocated you [name of teaching module]. And apologies for this SNAFU. As these things come in threes [...] you can expect open [i.e. 'one’] more gaffe from me before beginning next year!

All I can say is - it’s nothing personal!!!!



The humour in this comment arises from the use of the abbreviation ‘SNAFU’, which means ‘situation normal all tucked up’, and the subsequent self-denigrating and equally humorous comments with which Bentley apologises for his mistakes. The light-hearted tone of this apology is further intensified by his excessive use of exclamation marks and his emphasis at the end of the email, that ‘it’s nothing personal!!!!’. These contextualisation cues mark this exchange as humorous. This humour comes after a more serious and transactional beginning, in which he asks Rebecca to confirm that she has performed some previously discussed work (‘Can I just ...’), and his subsequent expectation that she has indeed done so (‘Sure you have’). He follows this up by outlining his own actions (‘For my part...’), and so the humour in the following apology seems more like an add-on, and not strictly speaking necessary to convey all these transactional messages. Nevertheless, the humour plays several important functions here: not only does it make Bentley’s apology more acceptable, but it also creates solidarity and builds rapport between interlocutors. All these behaviours are important elements of leadership as they combine transactional and relational behaviours to ensure that things are getting done, while maintaining a positive and collegial relationship (e.g. Schnurr 2009b). These witty remarks, which are delivered in a style that has often been described as feminine (especially the self-denigrating comment and the apologetic tone) thus assist Bentley in his leadership performance. But like in the examples discussed above, there are no contextualisation cues or evidence of conversational inferencing that would mark his use of humour as explicitly gendered.

Discussion and conclusion

Our examples of authentic spoken and written interactions collected in a range of workplaces in different sociocultural contexts provide a snapshot of the wide diversity of the ways in which those in leadership positions use different types of humour to achieve their various leadership aims. Our observations largely confirm findings of previous research which shows that leaders regularly use humour to achieve their various objectives and to perform a range of transactional, as well as relational, behaviours that are associated with leadership, including getting things done, criticising subordinates and telling them what to do, as well as creating solidarity and maintaining positive relationships (e.g. Holmes et al. 2011; Schnurr 2009b). Our examples above have shown that male and female leaders in different socioculmral contexts regularly use humour to assist them in their leadership performance. They all sometimes use humour in ways that are traditionally associated with masculinity or femininity, and we have ample evidence of women displaying behaviours that are typically indexed for masculinity, and men engaging in behaviours often associated with femininity (see also Mohd Omar 2019; Schnurr 2008, 2009b). These observations about the use of humour by male and female leaders thus provide compelling evidence to challenge prevailing stereotypes about gender and leadership, and also about gender and humour. In contrast to these negative preconceptions which tend to portray women as not using or not appreciating humour as much as men, we have described several instances in which leaders - regardless of gender - skilfiilly use humour when performing a range of activities associated with leadership.

In addition to adding evidence to earlier studies challenging gendered stereotypes (see also Holmes 2006; Ladegaard 2012; Mullany 2007), one of the aims of this chapter was to illustrate some of the benefits of using IS to analyse leadership, humour, and gender at work. As our analyses above have illustrated, one of the advantages of such an approach is that it equips the analysts with specific tools that facilitate the identification of humorous instances and their interpretation by the immediate audience via contextualisation cues (e.g. in the form of audible or orthographic laughter, emojis, a teasing tone of voice, excessive use of punctuation devices, and non-standard spelling). Moreover, through conversational inferencing and focusing on interlocutors’ reactions to the humour (i.e. what triggered the humour and how it was responded to (e.g. whether it was successfully continued, ignored or rejected) and by whom (e.g. the target of the humour, by several or only one other interlocutor)), analysts can gain insights into the interactional dynamics, and can better understand how interlocutors negotiate meaning throughout an exchange.

These obseivations about interlocutors’ behaviours on the micro-level of an interaction (such as then use of and responses to humour) can then, in turn, be linked to macro-level categories (such as leadership and gender), which enables researchers to identify and describe some of the specific (discursive) strategies through which interlocutors do leadership. IS thereby provides the tools and practices to generate empirical evidence in support of claims made by recent constructivist conceptualisations of leadership and gender as dynamic performances that are enacted and negotiated on the micro-level of interaction (e.g. Baxter 2014).

So, returning to the role of gender in the context of leadership and humour, in the examples that we discussed in this chapter, there was very little evidence of gender being explicitly relevant. The leaders in our data all used humour to achieve similar aims, regardless of gender, position, and sociocultural context. However, this does not mean that gender is not important. In fact, as we have discussed elsewhere, gender often remains relatively hidden but may come to the fore in the form of humorous (and sometimes sarcastic) remarks to send up some of the stereotypes that exist in the work domain (such as men not being able to multi-task (Schnurr and Holmes 2009); women decorating their office to make it more ‘girly’ (Schnurr 2008); and women being constantly worried about their looks (Holmes and Schnurr 2014)). Thus, while gender - with a few exceptions - does not seem to be constructed as an issue per se on the micro-level of actual everyday workplace interactions, negative stereotypes about gender, leadership, and humour seem to prevail in many workplaces.

However, this persistence of gender stereotypes in the ways in which women leaders are presented in the media or are being talked about in their workplaces is rather surprising given the evidence provided in this and many other smdies that challenge and reject such derogatory claims (e.g. Holmes 2006; Ladegaard 2012; Mullany 2007). It is thus clearly about time these old and inadequate stereotypes about gender, leadership, and humour are being abolished and replaced by less discriminatory views, and we hope that this study makes a small contribution to these efforts.

Future directions

As we have shown in our analyses, IS is a very useful approach to capture the complexities and dynamics of leadership, gender, and humour - both in spoken interactions as well as written digital texts. However, we believe that more could be made of this versatility of IS, and that researchers should in particular apply IS more systematically in their studies of leadership, gender, and other social phenomena in digital and multi-modal contexts, such as websites, Instagram, Snapchat etc. Applied to these complex and rapidly changing contexts, in which spoken, written, and visual texts are intricately interwoven with each other to create meaning, IS - perhaps when combined with another approach - has the potential to provide further evidence of the complex ways in which gender is constructed, enacted, and negotiated.

Transcription conventions

[laughter] square brackets provide information about paralinguis-

tic features

(.....) round brackets indicate the transcriber's best guess at

what was said

[teasing tone of voice] :......: words between colons are uttered in a teasing tone of



  • 1 The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 2016. Background report conference on improving women’s access to leadership 2016. https://www.oecd.org/daf/ca/OECD- Women-Leadei'ship-2016-Report.pdf
  • 2 In exploring the relevance of gender we look for evidence where interlocutors orient to gender in explicit or implicit ways, for example, by using specific pronouns when referring to allegedly gender- neutral tenns (like ‘manager’ - ‘he’, ‘nurse’ - ‘she’) or by mobilising overtly gendered identity categories (such as ‘bloke’, ‘girl’, ‘woman/female manager’ (as opposed to ‘manager’)). For a useful discussion of the theory behind ‘making gender relevant’ see Stokoe and Smithson (2001).
  • 3 We have italicised the relevant humour in all examples to facilitate an understanding and for ease of reading. The transcription conventions are included at the end of the chapter.
  • 4 Spelling, grammar, and capitalisation have been left as in the original, and we have tided to reflect participants’ practices as much as possible in our translations. Only names have been anonymised.
  • 5 This example also appears in Mohd Omar (2019).
  • 6 In this excexpt participants use two different codes: Malay and English. We have translated the Malay into English which appears below the original in the transcript.
  • 7 WhatsApp is an instant messaging application that operates across most smartphones, tablets, and desktops via a coimection to the internet. It is claimed to be the most well-run instant messaging sendee available; it handles more instant messages in a day than the entire global short-messaging system industry (Sutling et al. 2015). Its speediness in transmitting messages has enormously facilitated the way people communicate with each other (ibid.). For the puipose of this study, we have extracted bite-sized chunks of text from a longer decision-making interaction of a committee team in Malaysia.
  • 8 Spelling, grammar, and capitalisation were left as in the original. Only names have been anonymised.

Further reading

Baxter, J. (2014) ‘Who wants to be the leader? The linguistic construction of emerging leadership in differently gendered teams’, International Journal of Business Communication, 52(4), pp. 427-451. This paper provides a good discussion of some of the advantages of IS for analysing and understanding leadership in action.

Hohnes, J. (2006) Gendered talk at work: constructing gender identity through workplace discourse. Malden, MA: Wiley- Blackwell.

This research monograph contains two very good chapters on gender and leadership, and gender and humour.

Mullany, L. (2004) ‘Gender, politeness and institutional power roles: humour as a tactic to gain compliance in workplace business meetings’, Multilingua, 23, pp. 13-37.

This paper explores gender, leadership, and humour from the angle of politeness.

Rogerson-Revell, P. (2011) ‘Chairing international business meetings. Investigating humour and leadership style in the workplace’, in Angouri, J. and Marra, M. (eds) Constructing identities at work. Basingstoke: Palgrave.

This paper is a very interesting study of leadership and humour. Although its main focus is not gender, it does briefly touch upon it.

Schnurr, S. (2009b) Leadership discourse at work: interactions of humour, gender and workplace culture. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

This research monograph specifically deals with leadership and humour using an IS approach. One of the chapters is dedicated to the topic of gender.

Related topics

Interactional sociolinguistics: foundations, developments and applications to language, gender and sexuality; identity construction in gendered workplaces; leadership language of Middle Eastern women; interactional sociolinguistics in language and sexuality research: benefits and challenges; language, gender, and the discursive production of women as leaders.


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