Interviews are serious business. The company you're applying to is seeking the perfect person to fill the job. Your future career and income depend upon how well you convince them that you're that perfect choice. Unless the opportunity is for a gig as a stand-up comedian, most job seekers don't plan on using humor in their interview. A mood-lightening line, however, could be the one crucial moment that gets you hired.
Let the Room Breathe
One of my first big interviews was for a position at a college library. I sat at one end of a conference table with six other people, two from the library and four from other areas of the college. The interview questions were tough, checking my solutions to very specific scenarios about dealing with library technology, difficult patrons, and issues of diversity. It was a small room and a stressful, claustrophobic atmosphere that was increasing in intensity with every passing minute.
I thought I was answering questions well, but no one seemed all that impressed. The interrogators were perhaps feeling oppressed by that room as well. Then they asked, "What would you do if you encountered someone who was tearing pages out of a library magazine?" Feeling passionate about the subject, I replied, "You mean after I finished choking them?"
The air changed in the room after that. There was some surprise, a chuckle or two, and one of the librarians grinned and banged one hand on the table top in approval as she jotted notes with the other. The joke had broken through the tension, and the mood in the room suddenly lightened.
Create a Connection
Career experts suggest humor as a way to connect with your potential employer, to illustrate how you'll fit in with the company's culture. The librarian that had the most positive reaction to my joking response turned out to be my future supervisor. She said my answer to that question had been the key to her decision to hire me. All the serious answers show a person's skill and reasoning ability, but that joke revealed my passion for the field. It tapped into the strong feelings all librarians have about preserving knowledge and everyone's access to it.
This is where one humorous interview answer can land you a job. It can't be a generic one-liner you heard from a friend, it has to be something that has an "inside joke" feel to it. Poking fun at notoriously glitchy software everyone in the field uses, or eye-rolling some new law that leads to unnecessary paperwork your potential colleagues all hate doing, can create an instant connection. You want as many people in that room as possible nodding and thinking, "She gets it. She's one of us."
Back It Up
Not everyone in my interview was a librarian, and not everyone found my joke as amusing as my future boss did. That's why it was important that I backed up the joking line with the "real" answer, which addressed things like following existing policy and contacting security. If you use a joke to answer a question, always include a more serious response to show that you're not mocking the question or the interviewers. You also don't want them thinking you're using humor to mask a lack of knowledge.
Know Yourself and Your Audience
Cracking a joke in an interview is a calculated risk. If you're not someone who uses humor easily, or if you sense your interviewer isn't in the mood for a laugh, consider sticking to the script. When you do use humor, you'll want it to arrive as organically as possible. Unless you have an amusing anecdote you know you can use to illustrate your skill in handling a particular job-related situation, don't study up on potentially funny jokes to make. Forcing humor can create a more awkward situation than the one you're trying to diffuse.
Know what your goals are. Searching for a dream job allows you to be freer with your humor in the interview process. If the people questioning you don't like your personality, it's not going to be a pleasant work environment and you won't want to be hired anyway. However, if you need this position to pay the bills now, or as a crucial stepping stone to a dream career, it pays to be a little more selective with joking responses.