This World Book Day started off as the usual joyous orgy of viperous one-upmanship as proud parents jostling to outdo each other at the school gates with the costumes they’d made for their offspring.
“Doesn’t Timothy look divine in his Marcel Proust outfit? He grew the moustache himself.”
And then, somewhere in Manchester, one mother went and spoiled it for everyone. She decided to dress her 11-year-son, Liam Scholes, as Christian Grey, the sadomasochist from 50 Shades of Grey. Young Liam wore a dark suit, shoes and, to finish the outfit, carried an eye mask and some cable ties into lessons. The lad was subsequently barred from class photos at Sale High School. Cue media furore and a general national gnashing of teeth. What an outrage!
But the thing is, Liam’s mother Nicola - herself a teacher - had a defence we’ve all used in tricky situations. She did it for a laugh.
She later told reporters: “We thought it was funny. We were walking home from school and Liam had the idea of going as Christian Grey. At first we laughed it off but then we discussed it with a few friends and saw the funny side and decided it was quite a good costume idea.”
Did she have a point? Was it funny? While plenty of people were whipped into a froth of indignation by the story, how many saw the funny side?
I admit that I did. Before I’d even heard about Liam’s escapades I joked to a colleague that it would be funny if someone sent their child to school dressed as a character from 50 Shades. And it happened. Ha-ha-ha. Good one.
So there’s the thing about humour. It’s subjective and divisive. One person’s joke is another’s offensive remark. Comedians play on this shifting balance all the time. So does Jeremy Clarkson whose list of transgressions has had half the country rolling with laughter and the other half calling for his head on a platter.
In management and leadership, humour can be a powerful tool. And it can also be a dangerous one. In any job, when you start joking with your colleagues, you need to be aware of where the line is. A selection of your best Frankie Boyle one-liners isn’t going to break the ice at the annual works diversity dinner. But a humorous remark might thaw the tension in a difficult meeting. The key is appropriateness. Too much humour and you end up like Big Nev from The Call Centre, too little and you end up like Mr Burns from The Simpsons.
Workplaces that promote fun and organic laughter have happier, healthier and more productive workers and, as a result, see an increase in profits and results. Laughter and humour can improve communication at work, build stronger relationships and diffuse tense situations. People are drawn to others who laugh. In last week’s televised pre-election Q&A with Ed Miliband and David Cameron, Ed came out slightly on top according to commentators because he smiled more and cracked a couple of jokes.
And if you really want, have an annual fancy dress day to raise money for a charity. Just remember to leave the Osama Bin Laden outfit at home. Not everyone will think it’s funny!