The Betty White Guide to Business

I am too serious. Seriously. I was throwing around the f-bomb again in a meeting yesterday flustered to figure out timelines, on an empty stomach, in an early menopausal state consisting of heat flashes and severe mood swings. The person I was in a meeting with was able to laugh at my duress and this calmed me down, because I realized how ridiculous my tantrum was. It got me thinking about the place that humour has at work. I know I can tell a self-deprecating joke, swear like a sailor and moonwalk my way to a meeting, and still be awesome at my job; so why does serious = professional in the minds of many? Saying, writing, doing the wrong thing can be detrimental to your success. Right? But what could letting your hair down get you? How amazing would you feel if you could just be magical, lighthearted, hilarious you?

I was watching an episode or three of Golden Girls the other day and it became clear to me that Betty White might just have it all figured out. From Mary Tyler Moore to Mama’s Family, Betty White has made a career out of tickling people’s hearts. Her ability to laugh and be laughed at has allowed her to transcend taste (The Bold and the Beautiful), gender (The Roast of William Shatner), and social status (veteran host of Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade). She is relatable to people around the world and respect and admiration have only grown for her, marked by multiple awards for acting, producing, writing and animal rights activism over the course of her 60+ year career. She is as funny in an ensemble (The Carol Burnett Show) as she is being the star (The Betty White Show, Off Their Rockers). Her unusual choices (movies like Lake Placid and Alf Loves A Mystery) have led to a diverse body of work and her fearlessness has led her to unexpected places (acclaimed gig hosting Saturday Night Live; noted as the oldest person ever to host) and groundbreaking opportunities, such as being one of the few women in television to have full creative control in front of the camera and behind the women in the 1950s. She is determined, she has presence, she has demonstrated continuous passion and, most importantly, it’s been based on laughing the whole way through. Betty White epitomizes my ideal business model.

I wanted to talk to someone else whose lighthearted quips and quirks haven’t held her back from success, but rather catapulted her into a niche all her own in a competitive industry where scrutiny is the name of the game. I finagled an interview with Canada’s own, less aged, Betty White: Hilary Doyle. Hilary is the writer, producer and lead actress in Stock & Awe (CTV), a primer for audiences who want to laugh while they learn about the complicated world of finance. She has worked as a reporter on The Hour with George Stroumboulopoulos (CBC), and as a print journalist in Toronto, Mexico, and West Africa. She spent three years touring with Second City’s National Touring Company, and has worked as an actress in Chicago, New York and Toronto. She is currently an on-air contributor at The Marilyn Dennis Show and the business columnist for CBC weekend radio.

Alison: Doyle, we’ve worked together and we’ve laughed together. What role do you think humour plays in the workplace?

Hilary: Humour plays a critical role in the office. It tricks you into doing things. People work best when they don’t feel they’re working. Trick #1. The average office space is built for everything but what it’s intended for. Offices don’t naturally foster creativity or focus; they’re great places for distraction, self-loathing, anxiety, competition, halogen headaches and unfettered boredom. So, yes. Humour. Humour is respite. It’s life. It’s a reminder that there are things beyond the office, and it tricks you into believing you’re friends with your colleagues. One big happy family. Trick #2. 

Alison: Can you give an example of how you’ve best navigated a workplace situation using humour?

Hilary: I wrote a television comedy about business in order to create a niche for myself in a competitive business news environment that didn’t naturally play to my strengths. Humour in the workplace gives you options. I’ve always thought it gives you a broader view of the world. At the very least, it helps prove you’re smarter than everyone around you.  

Alison: What advice can you offer young professionals who compartmentalize their on-duty and off-duty selves?

Hilary: Stop. I mean, don’t start telling bar tales to your boss, but be just as funny at the office as you are outside of it. Humour in a serious environment is, truly, the best form of multitasking. Plus, it can get you discovered, which, let’s face it, is the end game for all endeavours.

Alison: Thanks Doyle. Wakka wakka wakka.

Hilary: My pleasure.

I am pretty sure HD and I are friends, but egad, perhaps I’ve been tricked. In any case, she’s made me laugh out loud on more than several occasions, so I’ll take whatever humour handouts I can get and discuss with a therapist later.

Ultimately, my feeling about life is that humour is the best way to make it through any day, and the biggest part of me refuses to compromise that outlook at work or at play…even though I sometimes get carried away in those deep dark Claire Danes moments. I realize that we all enjoy different flavours of funny, and that one person’s personality can be another person’s irritating workplace neighbour. We are forced to engage with people day in and day out who we don’t choose after all. The truth is that although no one will ever accuse me of being cool (fact), I am almost always unabashed when it comes to making a fool of myself, on purpose or otherwise. This is not always met with praise but it is sometimes met with a snort and a smile, and those are the moments that remind me I’m not alone and it’s OK to be me no matter where I am.