Did you hear the one about the genuinely funny guy that nobody likes? Me neither. Because people like funny people.

We like to laugh. Humour puts us at ease, relieves stress, and builds camaraderie, all of which can go a long way towards making you likeable and contributing to your success.

In fact, a 2013 study found that the strongest influencing factor on whether employers would choose one candidate over another was sense of humor – they’d choose the candidate with the better one.

So, you might want to work on yours.

When people think you’re funny, they say you have a “sense of humour.” But a “sense of humour” is subjective. Everyone has a “sense” of humour. What we mean when we note someone else’s is that it’s similar to ours.

Also, when I talk about people who are “genuinely funny,” I’m not necessarily talking about performers or class clowns. There’s a difference between stand-up comics and just plain funny people. In my experience, most stand ups aren’t very funny in day-to-day interactions and those who try to be are just annoying. Also, a recent study found that comedians show a high level of psychotic personality traits. Performers and regular people are different. Don’t be the guy who demands attention all the time and sucks the air out of a room.

Can you increase your regular funniness factor? I think so.

Peter McGraw is a marketing professor, head of the Humor Research Lab (HuRL) at the University of Colorado, and co-author of the new book The Humor Code: A Global Search For What Makes Things Funny.

McGraw and fellow researcher Caleb Warren have a theory they call “The Benign Violation Theory.” They propose that “humor occurs when and only when three conditions are satisfied: (1) a situation is violation, (2) the situation is benign, and (3) both perceptions occur simultaneously. A violation occurs when a situation threatens the way that you believe the world “ought” to be. Simply put, something seems wrong. Violations take many forms, ranging from tickling and playfighting to the violations of linguistical norms, conventions, and rules that take place in puns.”

It looks like this:

Graph of the benign violation theory of humour

And it’s why:

    • People laugh when tickled by someone they like and trust: it’s a violation and it is benign.
    • But you can’t tickle yourself: it’s not a violation and is simply benign.
    • And you wouldn’t laugh if a creepy stranger tickled you: the violation is not benign.

And, really, you either have a sense of these things or you don’t. But, like anything else, you can probably get better with practice.

I recently asked McGraw whether I could become the funniest person in the office.

He said he isn’t actually comfortable telling people how to be funny. He’s an academic and explains, “I haven’t done all the hard work to figure out the right examples of these things.”

But, with that in mind, here are five tips for being funny at work:

    1. Target yourself first. “The simple rule that I like to prescribe is, if you’re going to make fun of something, start with yourself, engaging in some self-deprecation. This is the best example of benign violation.”

    2. Stay away from taboo material. “There are risks in being funny. Clearly avoid the list if “isms” that any HR manager would say would be off limits. Any sort of sexist jokes or anything risqué in that sort of way.”

    3. Know your audience. “Are there ways to make comedy inclusive, so it brings people together rather than sets people apart? It seems that if you’re going to make someone the butt of the joke, you make it someone that everyone agrees should be the butt of the joke. For example, your competitors.”

    4. Look for the points of tension. “If you think about it from a Benign Violation standpoint, the best comedy material is going to be the stuff that seems amiss, the things that are uncomfortable. If done well, it also can help people in terms of coping. If you transform uncomfortable violations into benign ones through a joke, and people laugh, not only are they laughing and they’re experiencing positive emotion but if you can joke about a challenge you can actually change the way people think about it.” And then you will really impress higher ups.

    5. Have an apology ready. Not everyone is going to think you’re funny. “Be quick to apologize. If it falls flat, you have to be ready to quickly and authentically apologize. ‘I’m sorry. I was making a joke and I went too far.’”

Finally, McGraw says some people just shouldn’t try. “I actually don’t think everyone should try to be funny. It should be the people who are the most adept at it all. Some people, if they try to funny are just going to be offensive.” It’s better to be unfunny than to be offensive.

How do you know which one you are? If people don’t laugh at your jokes, stop making them.