But I’m Not Laughing

By Linda F. Willing

Kidding around is as much a part of fire serv- ice culture as lights and sirens on fire apparatus. It is almost impossible to imagine firefighters who didn’t engage in teasing, practical jokes, and telling tall tales. Many people feel that these behaviors serve an important purpose: When you’ve just spent the last hour scraping someone’s brains off the sidewalk, the most therapeutic thing to come next might be a fairly tasteless joke. But when do joking and teasing go too far? And how can you prevent such behavior from crossing the line?

Joking and teasing take many forms in the fire service. Nicknames and funny stories based on past events exist in just about every fire department, as do the occasional pranks. In most cases, these behaviors reflect benign or good intentions and can be a way of bonding a group. But when teasing crosses over to harassment, hazing, or a way of masking truly malicious intentions, trouble is sure to follow.

And the trouble can be big. Several incidents of physical violence and injury have resulted from firefighters who were supposedly only “razzing” each other. The kidding-around defense is often tried unsuccessfully to explain widespread harassment and isolation of individuals within organizations. Firefighters sometimes act surprised when they are held accountable for behavior that seemed in the moment to be “all in fun” and can’t understand why someone is offended. “We weren’t laughing at you,” they say. “We were laughing with you.” To which the obvious rejoinder is, “Then how come I’m not laughing?”

Is it possible to retain the positive culture of fire service humor without having it inevitably wash over into unprofessional and damaging behavior? Is the only safe alternative just eliminating kidding around altogether, selecting by default the so-called “sterile workplace”?

This latter option is bad for everyone, but creating an organizational culture that can include appropriate humor and teasing does take leadership and commitment. The beginning of this process requires that present behaviors be seen clearly and either supported, changed, or eliminated.

Teasing has been defined as personal communication directed by an agent toward a target that includes three components: aggression or identity confrontation, humor, and ambiguity. Within these parameters, various kinds of teasing can be differentiated. For example, prosocial teasing, intended as a way of positively including the target in the group, is usually high in humor, low in ambiguity, and moderate in its intention to confront identity. In other words, friendly teasing is genuinely funny and clear in its meaning, and the other person is actually laughing along with everyone else.

But not all teasing is innocuous. On the other end of the spectrum, bullying is usually low in humor and ambiguity but high in its aggression component. It’s not funny, it hurts, and everyone is clear about the intention. Workplace harassment can also be analyzed within this matrix—it is only funny to those perpetrating it, and it has the ability to do real damage to personal identity while at the same time include considerable ambiguity about its real intention.

Studies show that while everyone teases others at some point in their lives, those who tease in organizations tend to be more dominant players or hold more formal or informal power. For that reason, it is common for incumbent firefighters to tease rookies, but it would be considered inappropriate for a new person to make a joke about a senior firefighter. In some cases, gaining the right to tease others is the milestone at which new people become a bona fide part of the group.

This is one of the biggest problems with hazing—the process by which new firefighters are teased and mistreated as a right of passage into the organization. Seen in the most favorable possible terms, hazing is a contract. You come into the organization, and you are treated like scum. You understand the reasons and also understand that the mistreatment, if satisfactorily tolerated, will result in two big rewards: You will gain full acceptance into the group, and you will also gain the right to similarly haze or tease others. Hazing by this definition is also finite—it lasts for a defined period, after which the rewards can be claimed.

CROSSING THE LINE: HAZING

Hazing is a misguided way of forming teams for several reasons, but it really doesn’t work when groups include any kind of diversity. Diversity in this sense goes far beyond the usual race/gender/ethnicity markers to include all aspects of values and lifestyles. Given this definition, all groups are significantly diverse and thus not well served by the hazing mentality.

Here’s the problem. Suppose you come into an organization that promotes some type of hazing as a means of ultimately including members. You put up with it, laugh at the teasing and pranks along with everyone else, even if only as a survival technique. You endure the typical hazing period, after which you are supposed to be accepted as a full member.

But what if you are not really a full member at that time in the same way as the others? This different status may result from a number of factors. Because you are of a different race or gender, significantly older or younger, or just different in some other way from the dominant group, you may never really be accepted by that group the same as other people might. It is also possible that for any number of reasons, you don’t want or value that type of group acceptance as others might. In these cases, an individual ends up paying the price and getting nothing in return. It’s a bad deal.

Hazing is also dangerous because it creates its own momentum and is thus very difficult to stop. Those who have endured hazing as newcomers see as a significant reward the right to be in the dominant group the next time around. End hazing, and there will always be an entire group of people who paid their dues but feel cheated out of their payback. There is great incentive to continue the practice “just one more time,” forever.

Most fire departments have outlawed formalized hazing, which is not to say that teasing and other potentially hurtful behaviors do not continue, based on similar motives. New people are often set up as the brunt of jokes and pranks. Based on the hazing tradition, this may be seen as a valid method of team building. But what kind of teams are being formed if people feel intimidated, pressured to go along, and unable to express their true feelings?

It is possible to balance the potential benefits of joking and teasing with the real dangers that exist when such behaviors are not monitored and controlled. The way to achieve this balance is not through micromanagement, as some fire departments have attempted—issuing lengthy documents that attempt to outline every possible behavior and its level of acceptability. Informal personal contact in the fire station, from which joking and teasing usually arise, is too dependent on context to ever be successfully regulated in this way. You can dictate what words are said, perhaps, but not the tone of voice or facial expression that might accompany them.

This is not to say that you should not have a short list of “thou shalt nots.” There are certain behaviors that are never okay in the workplace, and certain words—such as racial or sexual slurs—that are always inappropriate. Having certain things defined in this way will remove some potential ambiguity later. If a word is inappropriate in the workplace, it is inappropriate for everyone. The fact that some people use racial or sexual slurs comfortably among themselves is irrelevant. In the context of the workplace, a word that can get one person in serious trouble should not be said with impunity by another.

In the bigger picture, however, it may be better to set guidelines for behavior based on principles rather than specific rules. Trying to define and legislate every potential situation will lead to much time and energy spent for little gain. Remember, a critical component of teasing is ambiguity. Accept that teasing and joking encounters are dependent on context and are individual in their intentions and outcomes. Instead, get agreement about the big picture.

Some fire departments have mission or values statements that have been imposed on them by some outside agency—the city, a select design team, or a consultant, for example. Firefighters may treat these statements as a joke, but that does not mean that they lack a sense of common values among themselves. Ask them, What are the guiding principles you expect everyone to follow within this organization? It usually won’t take long for a list based on strong consensus to be generated: We take care of one another. We take calculated risks but never unnecessarily compromise safety. We work as a team. We serve the community to the best of our ability. Everyone is expected to contribute.

These and other values or principles can then be used as a basis of decision making. Does this behavior or practice include everyone as a member of the team? Is it safe? Does it serve the community? If an activity clearly violates the agreed-on principles, then it is not okay, no matter how much a few people might be laughing at the moment.

WHAT LEADERS CAN DO

People generally do understand the difference between teasing and joking that is beneficial and that which is divisive or damaging. But it is also easy to get caught up in the moment and allow normal guidelines to slip. Firefighters are by nature competitive, and some groups can egg each other on with a “Can you top this?” repartee that can easily go over the edge of professionalism or even human decency.

This is where leaders come in. In all the recent reports of bad behavior among firefighters, one has to ask, “Where was the officer when this was going on?” And the answer has to be: He was holding the camera, laughing right along. Afterward, excuses may be offered: “But I thought it was all in fun.” “Nobody ever said they were offended.”

Officers, particularly company officers, have a difficult balancing act to perform on a minute-to-minute basis. They are in charge, but they also live with their crews—eat, sleep, watch TV, and swap stories around the coffee table. Most officers come up through the ranks of their departments, so they may go from being “one of the guys” one day to being the authority figure the next. This makes many people uncomfortable, and it doesn’t help that they usually get very little training or support for this new function. New officers are trained in technical skills—strategy and tactics and incident command—but often get no training at all in how to influence people, how to intervene when bad behavior is occurring, or how to confront someone in a constructive way.

The key to keeping teasing and joking prosocial and useful as opposed to hurtful and damaging is principled leadership. Leaders need skills such as the ability to listen effectively, to resolve conflict appropriately, and to give useful and timely feedback to their co-workers and subordinates. Leaders also need support to exercise these skills and the freedom to handle problems at their level without being second-guessed or micromanaged. Those who are managed too closely will soon give up being leaders altogether. And that can create much bigger problems.

The definition of who is a leader also needs to be expanded. Often only those with the formal rank are seen as being in any position of accountability, but this is a mistake. Informal leaders such as senior firefighters, union officials, and just those who are popular and looked up to need to be recognized, respected, and held accountable for their roles in making the workplace inclusive, productive, and true to the guiding principles of the organization.

Ultimately, it all comes back to these shared principles and values. Why are we here? How do we want to be perceived by the community? How can we best do this important job, together as a team? When these principles are foremost in everyone’s mind, it is unlikely that there will be problems related to malicious teasing and humor. In a respectful, inclusive, and focused organization, such behavior would be seen as aberrant and treated as such. Like everything else in the fire service, it all comes back to leadership—at every level of the organization.

Reference

Behaving Badly: Aversive Behaviors in Interpersonal Relationships. Robin M. Kowalski, editor. American Psychological Association, 2001.

Linda F. Willing is a retired fire officer with the Boulder (CO) Fire Department and is the principal trainer and consultant with RealWorld Training & Consulting. She is an adjunct faculty member with the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer and Management Science programs. She has a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania and a master’s degree in management science from Regis University in Denver.

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