Invisible hierarchies and humor

A while ago, I was in a meeting (shocking, I know). The host of the meeting was doing a good job with facilitating – you know those meetings that just go well? It was one of those. Not spectacular, but that was not the intention anyway, we just got the job done. A perfectly ordinary meeting. Why am I bothering you with my description of it right now? There’s something that stuck with me, something the host said in an offhanded way. A rough translation of the comment would be:

“What do you think about this? I’m just the funny [nationality descriptor], what do I know, right? So I need your opinion.”

People laughed a bit. I laughed a bit. It was delivered with just the right amount of self-deprecation to make it easier for the group to speak. As a facilitation technique, it was well done, and it worked.

But it still sits kind of uncomfortable in my mind, the way this person said what they said. It got me thinking about power structures, so I searched around a bit for invisible hierarchies, or hierarchies among peers, but there was nothing out there that fit what I was looking for. The only thing I found was this study about humor as a coping mechanism that says if you can get people to make positive jokes about something, there’s positive effects on the brain. But in cases where positive humor does not work, they say: “studies of hostile joking in disempowered groups such as POWs have revealed dramatic benefits, giving the humorists a sense of control and agency.”

I don’t want to say that anyone in that room was particularly racist and actively suppressing a minority. But maybe this kind of joking is a way of controlling the narrative around being the only one of something in this group. It gives back some of the power that is naturally assumed to be on the side of the majority. The hierarchy is invisible – there is no job title difference, no obvious power differential, but we behave accordingly anyway. I mean, why did we laugh? There is nothing particularly funny about saying that [nationality] is inherently less knowledgeable. I can only speculate that the host’s joke was aiming at the contrast of them being the facilitator, so in a temporary position of more power, but also a foreigner. Maybe there’s some kind of subconscious tension around this? I’d love to see some studies on how we deal with this kind of situation and how we can resolve the tension (or whatever the reason was, I’m no psychologist) without joke-bashing an entire nation’s people.

Another aspect of this is that studies about women in the workplace have shown similar behaviors when they are the minority, and the effect on women’s perceived status in the social hierarchy among peers once they break out of the expected behavior. For example, this HBR article describes why women stay out of the spotlight at work. In a nutshell: women get told they are not promoted as much because they are not as visible, but if they display the same behavior as men to get more visibility, they face social backlash. It’s an invisible hierarchy – on paper, we are equal, but in practice, we’re still working on it. It feels like a similar dynamic, although I am not going to pretend that I can imagine what it feels like to be a foreigner, part of a minority, in Germany – especially with the current political climate.

What do we make of this? I don’t have a solution. What I do have now is a better understanding how easy it is to stay in established structures – and therefore, how hard to break out of them – and a glimpse of my privilege as a white person in a western country, regardless of gender.


  1. Heinrich Jean-Luc

    Dear Christine,

    You’re perfectly right, I remember to have used this kind of sentence for starting a presentation …

    “my name is H. … yes it’s a German name but be sure I am fully French” as a kind a joke ice breaker to introduce myself.

    I currently use externaly too …

    “yes to tell from crtatch the truth I am a Bayer employee, the one company which recently purchased Monsento”

    So what ?

    May be it’s a simple way to gently introduce yourself to others trying to break the invisible walls which exist anayway.

    Not sure ther is a need to dig too much into … hierarchy, gender, age, nationality … differencies in between people exist …. it a fact that we do need to accept and not to balance.

    Best Regards


    1. christine

      Hi Jean-Lux, thanks for sharing and great to see you here 🙂 I certainly don’t mind people using that kind of joke if it’s the right thing for them. But I do think the things that we laugh about show the social undercurrents that we’re not always aware of. Differences are welcome and appreciated, power imbalances due to those differences are often unfair and worse, not even recognized.
      I do appreciate your input and I certainly remember using my nationality as material for jokes while I was abroad myself, so it’s a sticky subject for sure.

  2. Jens

    Humor is very tricky, I guess. Using it is simple, mastering it is an art.

    I think there are four aspects that have to be taken in mind before using humor:

    1. Are you good at producing humor or being funny? Some people can make people crack up a whole audience by just wiggling their ears at the right occasion, while other people would fail to tell a good joke.

    2. Are you good in guessing the right situation for using or appreciating humor? There are situations when humor works great, and others when they spoil everything.

    3. What is the attitude of others regarding humor and jokes? Attitudes can be extremely different based on culture, background, and education. This is particularly important in international meetings, or with mixed audiences. The same joke that cracks up a group of statisticians will probably make other people consider you a total fool.

    4. What is the effect you want to achieve by using humor or being funny? If you don’t have a plan, just don’t. But there are lots of reasons for using humor: To increase general well-being. To create a conspiracy of people who have shared a funny moment. To accept something that cannot be changed – like invisible hierarchy or boundaries. To help overcome denial. Or to reframe an awful situation. All valid reasons. But if you don’t have a plan, just don’t use humor.

    5. Last not least, humor is free, so spread it.

  3. Daniel Krah

    Thank you for sharing your detailed observations and their careful interpretation. While I wish we could all treat our cultural differences a bit more lightly I have experienced similar situations of almost subtle submission. Belonging to a minority of any sorts it must be a thin line between being perceived as confident or over-compensating.

Comments are closed.