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In an interview, there is often this icy nervousness. Would it be appropriate to make a comment about something mundane, like the coffeeshop nearby, etc? Just to break the ice? How much humor can I display in an interview setting?

In particular, I am talking about interviews in the IT sector.

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    What industry? Who's interviewing, HR or someone in the department? I might joke with another (insert job title) but I'd be wary of appearing unprofessional in the face of certain departments. – Rarity May 13 '12 at 20:08
  • @Rarity - Thank You good question, it will be programmers and maybe IT managers – Adel May 13 '12 at 20:20
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    Much better title @jcmeloni – Rarity May 14 '12 at 14:14
  • At my current organization (which is a great place to work, and in the IT industry), one of the interview questions literally was "tell a joke". – Azendale Mar 4 '14 at 1:58
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I myself tend to be a very humorous person, but I wouldn't make the first humorous remark right off the bat (maybe it's a personal preference, but whatever). I always wait and see how they act and if they're laughing and joking, I'm perfectly fine with laughing and joking back. If they're serious through the entire interview, you should probably be serious as well.

If you do joke, only joke about things that are very closely related to what's being talked about at that moment. Most importantly, try to be vague. Using specific names, companies, or brands may trigger the "Well, I like that [whatever it is]." Then you're in an awkward situation. Obviously the general rules of not being offensive, etc would always apply, no matter how comfortable you feel at the interview. Don't want them thinking you're racist or something.

One panel interview I attended was at a fire station, which we were unable to get into because it so happens that all the fire staff had gone out on calls and the building was locked. While we were standing outside, we made a lot of jokes about fire departments (in general). No specific names (of fire fighters) were mentioned, and it didn't focus on any specific fire department. Since they were already joking about fire departments in general, I felt perfectly comfortable joining in.

Remember that they are still people, and every person does things differently and takes what you say differently. Start off safe, learn what they think is acceptable, and go from there. Think of a potentially unwelcomed joke as a unnecessary risk that could jeopardize the interview.

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In general, you are better off not trying to be funny during an interview (barring an interview as a comedian of course) because it is simply too easy to say something offensive accidentally or worse yet, leave a negative impression with someone who takes things seriously. If there is a lunch or dinner portion of the interview you might be able to get away with being a bit lighthearted but you need to remember you are still "on the clock" and there is a critical eye on you.

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    +1 on this, it is just too dangerous. Many people completely lack a sense of humor and will not laugh at the perfect joke. These same people are also highly unlikely to comprehend or appreciate sarcasm and irony. Even jovial self deprecation is lost on some people and will just be confused and interpret you as pointing out character flaws in yourself. Thats not to say the interviewer isn't a nice person but you can very easily confuse, offend or look bad by being humorous in a business setting. – maple_shaft May 14 '12 at 11:39
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    Good advice. It is also especially important when cultural boundaries are crossed. – tehnyit May 14 '12 at 14:30
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In terms of ability, I'm pretty sure you have the ability to make a comment about something mundane. However, you do have to be aware that in breaking the ice you may also be shooting off your foot. For example, some people may remark about how they strongly dislike coffee from Starbucks and thus make a remark like, "I hope the coffee here is better than the junk they serve down the street," which may or may not be well received. If the other person in the interview is a diehard fan of Starbucks then you may have a big mess to clean up as what to you was mundane isn't mundane to him or her.

Humor in an interview can be good but also difficult to successfully do. Nailing the timing and delivery is a key point. Just be prepared to defend why you're saying what you say. Chances are either the other person can accept that part of you or not.

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I agree that humour can be good to break the ice, but you have to be careful with it. You're being interviewed by strangers in a professional setting who may get to make the decision on whether or not you get the job. You don't know anything about them so you can't assume you know what sort of jokes will be offensive to them or not. If you want to make a joke, try to keep it as clean and family-friendly and non-insulting as possible.

If they lead with a joke (because they may feel the same as you do), it is probably a good opporunity to respond to their comment with a joke of your own, but still try to keep it clean and friendly (even if their joke is not so clean).

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A couple considerations:

  1. You want to ensure that the target of your humor is not one that the person on the other side of the table is going to identify with. Obviously this will rule out ethnic, religious, and sexual humor, which I hope you would eschew anyway. But also about specific job roles -- it would be bad for a developer to joke about stupid business owners always changing requirements and not understanding the development process, but it may be OK to find some humor in the reality of shifting requirements without the implying that those changing the requirements are shifting are stupid. Your safest target is probably yourself -- self-deprecating humor that doesn't make you look stupid, but shows that you don't take yourself completely seriously.

  2. From the perspective of you interviewing the company as mush as they're interviewing you (assuming you're not looking for a job to pay this month's rent), if your personality is humorous, you probably do want to let some of that come through a bit in the interview. If the reaction is stony silence, that may indicate that this place won't be a great fit for you, and you'll be constantly stifling yourself. These are people you'll be next to for 40+ hours a week. Do you want to spend that time pretending you don't have a sense of humor?

  • Developers being interviewed by developers can probably joke about a lack of requirements, vague requirements or unrealistic requirements, but as you note, labeling requirements as 'stupid' is probably unwise. So, one of the things you might want to clarify in #1 is "know your audience", which might deserve a split from ruling out potentially offensive humor. One developer insider joke I always like to use "If the train wasn't moving, why would we need to paint it?" – David Navarre Aug 13 '12 at 18:33
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I think that someone who has a true gift for humor can very quickly adapt themselves to a situation using an intuitive feel for whether or not their humor is being received by the intended audience.

A good sense of humor, IMHO, is very much a sign of intelligence. If you got it, it is to your advantage to use it.

However, if you have to ask about "how much humor" to use, it is probably a good idea to restrain yourself at least until a rapport is developed with the people you're talking with.

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