PARIS â€" Itâ€™s a company like any other, in the 11th arrondissement of Paris. Except that in the BeMyApp offices, youâ€™ll hear a dinosaur screech and a stream of puns. Jokes that fail to get a laugh are taxed. Employees and managers put 20 cents in a jar. Itâ€™s the "bad joke tax."
"Me, personally, I'm very funny, so I never pay," jokes John Karp, one of the founders of this event planning company that regularly organizes hackathons. Here, the 30 Parisian employees work in a relaxed atmosphere, where communication and laughter are omnipresent.
Alexandre Sutra, who has worked here for four years, feels so good at BeMyApp that he regularly imitates a velociraptor â€" much to the amusement of his colleagues. "I used to work in an agency with a manager who gave me a hard time. I feel a lot more satisfied today," the event planner says. David Autissier, an associate professor at the Paris-Est-Créteil university and co-author of the book Petit traité de lâ€™humour au travail (small treatise on humor at work), sees the pro-laughter policies in places like BeMyApp as part of an overall trend that emphasizes people's well-being at work. "Humor helps people strengthen social bonds and improves atmospheres within companies," he says.
A good atmosphere is itself a good environment for laughter, Autissier explains. Itâ€™s a virtuous circle, in other words, that reinforces team cohesion and employee motivation."Laughter, by breaking down formalities, helps people access ideas they may have thought were stupid, but aren't necessarily. It boosts creativity," says Serge Grudzinski, founder of Humor Consulting Group, a laughter-in-the-workplace speciality firm.
Another company keen to promote laughter is Swiper, a start-up. "When people sulk, it doesnâ€™t make you want to go to work, whereas if employees feel good, they will be happy and motivated to develop projects together," says William Tarnowski, one of the founders. Here, the four employees work on the same level as the two managers.
Employees at the start-up often put in long hours â€" all the more reason why humor matters. "When we work until late in the evening, a good fit of laughter enables us to take a break. And it motivates the team. We get back to work with more energy and we get things done faster. Itâ€™s a lot better than a cup of coffee," Tarnowski says.
Colleagues laughing together â€" Photo: Richard foster
At BeMyApp, humor is also used to convey messages that arenâ€™t always amusing. "To announce to someone that theyâ€™ll have to work this weekend, or when assigning someone a new task, John, the manager, often comes with a big smile and says, "Hey, what are you doing this weekend?â€™ or â€˜I have a great mission for you,"" says Alexandre Sutra.
In this company, workplace frustrations aren't seen as failures, but as experiences that make things move forward. Laugther helps the process by defusing certain situations. "When you find yourselves in a real stalemate, joking sometimes helps you take a step back," says John Karp.
In these companies, laughter is part of a whole, of a working atmosphere where communication, exchange and kindness are essential. When he co-founded Linkbynet, in 2000, Patrick Aisenberg wanted to establish this kind of relaxed, but also hard-working state of mind. And he committed to maintaining that conviviality even as the computer management services company grew. Today, it has 650 employees, including 250 at the head offices, in Saint-Denis, near Paris.
Aisenberg still keeps his office in the same area as the other employees, and goes to great lengths to ensure their mental well-being: hammocks to rest, a pool table, a dart set, a ping pong table to relax â€" even a slide to go down from one story to another. "The manager sets the tone," he says. "I always joke, for example, before kicking off a meeting. It puts the employees at ease."
But don't just take the boss' word for it. â€œWe organize Nerf fights or races up the slide,â€ says Sébastien Moriceau, a longtime employee of Linkbynet. "It doesnâ€™t prevent us from working. Quite the opposite really."
Humor may be a resource managers can use, but it also has to be used with a level of measure and moderation. "It's important that things don't delve into teasing. Laughter must remain benevolent," says Serge Grudzinski. Linkbynet's Aisenberg agrees. "We allow teasing, but only for small things. We donâ€™t make fun of people."
It's also important to recognize that laughter isnâ€™t always appropriate. "I think joking is most relevant in non-tense situations, because in situations of crisis, it can have the opposite effect," says David Autissier.
All jokes aside, there will always be moments when work is no laughing matter.
The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.
LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.
Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.
Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.
The role of the nuclear pact
Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.
It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.
He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."
The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.
Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.
Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020commons.wikimedia.org
Riyadh's warming relations with Israel
Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."
The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."
Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."
Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.
If nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.
Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.
Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.
For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.
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