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Sunday, Sept. 26, 2010

BIG IN JAPAN

For young staff, the workplace is no joke


Mr. Sakamoto, a sales team leader at an IT systems company, got off to a rocky start when he was transferred to his current office. At the first meeting with his underlings, all in their 30s, the 43-year-old boss detected a tense atmosphere.

So he decided to break the ice.

"I'm the only one in their 40s, eh? I guess I'm going to raise the average age of the team, ha ha."

Only two in the group of eight managed a chuckle. The remainder sat in stony silence.

Mr. Sakamoto (a pseudonym) shouldn't have been too surprised. Nikkan Gendai (Sept. 7) informs us that today's crop of young workers are a dour, humorless bunch, not disposed to cracking a smile, let alone a laugh, at the office.

And the tendency, says the tabloid, is more than a figment of the older generation's imagination.

The article cites a poll by iShare, a research and PR company, which finds that 43 percent of workers in the 20s to 40s age bracket report never bursting out in genuine laughter at the workplace on the occasions they do laugh. Similarly, 37 percent report engaging in forced laughter, while 7 percent say they never laugh at all — regardless of the social dynamics taking place around them. A breakdown of age brackets shows that the tendency for laughter falls as workers get younger.

"Today's young workers are not fully in sync with their coworkers," Noriko Maeda, a human resources consultant, is quoted as saying. "The leading factor is the people who just say, 'I am who I am' (and therefore unwilling to fake a few laughs for the sake of getting along). They won't laugh, even when others around them are all laughing."

Maeda also notes that stony-faced workers are a sign of the times. Delight, anger, sorrow, pleasure — whatever emotions young people happen to be feeling while on the job, "they don't show up on their faces," she says.

If Sakamoto had an awkward experience on this first day of work, day two was even worse.

The sales boss paid an introductory visit to a client's office with a couple of young colleagues in tow. The summer heat wave was raging that day. After wrapping up the stiff formality of exchanging business cards, the client decided to relax the mood by stating: "It sure is hot! I just wanna drink beer or something from the afternoon on."

The two junior guys remained straight-faced when one of them flatly responded: "Not for me. I'm wearing sweat-absorbing underpants." Needless to say, the atmosphere instantly turned awkward.

Nikkan Gendai blames the nature of the modern office for the antilaughter crusade. Step inside a modern workplace, and you'll spot rows of peons hunched over their computers silently busy at work, or at least attempting to appear that way. It's a dry, clinical environment, where work is done largely in solitude.

In the backdrop is the performance- based — as opposed to seniority-based — system of promotions, which has taken root in the last decade or so. The shift has spawned a more ruthless attitude toward work among employees. Laughter is the last thing on their minds.

"There's a generation gap when it comes to the laughter between bosses and subordinates, and one problem might be that laughter isn't synchronized at the office," Maeda says.

Yu Kawaguchi calls himself "the director of the factory for laughing salarymen." His company is Moodmake Co., Ltd., a consultancy that stresses the benefits of having a regular laugh at the workplace.

Work, says Kawaguchi, is essentially a social activity. "When all your employees are toiling in front of computers, then that in itself is not work. The important thing is smooth teamwork. So come on, let's start by having more chit-chat. Workplace laughter can be generated only through chatting.

"In fact, workplaces with chatter have more solid communication and higher levels of teamwork efficiency. The boss should talk proactively, and even corny jokes can be good."

What should workers joke about?

"The best topic is about your own failures," Kawaguchi says. By putting yourself down, you cut the distance between the boss and the subordinates," Kawaguchi advises.

Perhaps the tabloid, which caters mainly to salarymen, could have been a bit more sympathetic to the younger generation. After all, today's labor market offers little to laugh about. Unemployment, wage deflation and growing job insecurity are at record levels.

Yet whatever the generation, it still seems that Japanese workers generally laugh more than their counterparts in other Western countries. A side story in the Nikkan Gendai story explains that there's a time for joking and laughing in foreign countries — and it's not at the office. Rather, Westerners tend to save the hijinks for home parties and other social events outside the workplace.

Some employers, however, are seeking a new direction. The business of "humor consulting" is starting to take off overseas. The idea is to use humor as a means of encouraging better communication at the office.

Given the lugubrious state of things in Japan, it's no surprise that such services are starting to crop up here as well.



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