The Act of Laughing

image showing laughter
Image courtesy of British Psychological SocietyOpens in new window

Laughter is a physical reaction in humans consisting typically of rhythmical, often audible contractions of the diaphragm and other parts of the respiratory system (WikipediaOpens in new window).

Laughter consists in variants form and we all laugh differently, from the suppressed titter to the loud and uproarious belly laugh. Louder and less suppressed laughter may indicate someone who is less self-conscious. It may also be used by a person who is trying to gain attention.

Laughing goes beyond smiling to express deeper pleasure and happiness. Whilst smilingOpens in new window may happen over a longer period, laughter is a relatively brief affair, happening for a few seconds.

According to Professor Jan Van HooffOpens in new window who is an ethologist, laughter is composed of a broad range of gestures and sounds. One can distinguish a burst of laughter from the average horse laugh which is characterized by an open mouth and exposed teeth.

image showing similarity of human and horse laugh
Image showing similarity of human and horse laugh

The horse laughter’s head remains level, so that he or she can see what the experts call the ‘risible source’. The vocalized smile is the softest form of audible laughter. It is characterized by a mouth slightly open, lips moderately retracted, and slight vocal effects, or ‘chuckles’. To laugh ‘up one’s sleeve’ is to laugh silently, through a slightly open mouth. The corners of the mouth turn up, and air is ejected in a staccato rhythm from the nose. Psychologists call this ‘risible sniffling’ (Bacri, 1992).

Children born deaf and blind smile and laugh as we do when they are happy and emit the correct sounds when they do so (Eibl-Eibesfeldt, 1973).

People sometimes laugh and smile at others’ misfortunes. Although, this is not socially acceptable; but we often find it funny. In such cases you may see suppressed grins and giggles as the person tries desperately to hide their feeling of amusement. Laughs, for example, may get disguised as coughs and the person may turn away to hide their expression.

Laughter in Social Settings

Laughter is a part of human social behavior regulated by the brain. That is, we can consciously control our laughter and even practice and improve it to suit our social interaction. Laughter is sometimes seen as contagious, and the laughter of one person can itself provoke laughter from others as a positive feedback.

Laughter is a social behavior: it is used in social settings with others. Rarely do we burst out laughing when alone, even when reading a humorous book or watching TV. In normal circumstances, it is the presence of others with whom we can share our humor that we laugh. We use laughter as a nonverbal punctuation to our speech. The laugh is usually produced in response to embarrassment, excitement, or humor.

Psychologically, the comic laugh (in response, for example, to funny jokes, puns, and satire) is a recent development linked to the evolution of speech (Given, 1999). It is not uncommon for people under stress to laugh too much and too loud, often revealing the nervousness and discomfort they are experiencing. This is their way of telling others to relax and be comfortable with them, to compensate for their emotional stress.

Laughter is a response to embarrassment, excitement, or humor. There are common labels for different forms of laughter: hollow, forced, mocking, bubbling, and so on. There is also a rich vocabulary to denote types of laughter: giggle, titter, chortle, guffaw, cackle, roar, crow, snigger, jeer, and so on.

We can ‘read’ laughter from the resulting sounds it generates. (The Secrets of Body Language, 1997).

  • Ha-Ha is a laughter that is genuine, coming straight from the heart. It expresses pure joy and self-fulfillment.
  • He-He is a mocking laugh, usually issuing from a condescending remark or a joke about a person.
  • Hee-Hee suggests a secret giggle or a snigger that is emitted when a person is being cynical or spiteful.
  • Ho-Ho communicates surprise, even disbelief, by a person who is critical, protesting, or challenging.

As with most gestures, laughter must be interpreted within its social context. No laughter in itself has any particular meaning. More than anything else, women want men to make them laugh (Givens, 1999).

Varieties of Laughter

Foot (1986) defines the following varieties of laughter:

1.  Humorous Laughter

Humorous Laughter may be regarded as an overt expression of rebellion against social pressure, codes, and institutions, of which all of us are victims. Some people use this socially harmless channel to effectively displace their frustration.

Our primary purpose in engaging in humorous laughter is to convey to others that like them we too find social conventions funny and that we too are continually frustrated by social pressures and the social niceties which exert so much control over our lives.

2.  Social Laughter

Social Laughter is a means of expressing friendship and liking, gaining social approval, and bolstering group cohesiveness. It does not depend upon individuals finding something but is intended to convey an image of good natured sociability. It is used for controlling conversation and for smooth social interaction. It is a ‘polite laughter’ when we laugh at what others have said not because we find it funny but out of consideration for the speakers and to gain their attention and appreciation.

3.  Ignorance Laughter

In Ignorance Laughter, we recognize that a joke has been told but wish to conceal our ignorance or inability to comprehend it. So we laugh with everyone else in the group in order not to be left out or to look stupid.

4.  Evasion Laughter

Like humor, laughter can serve as an emotional mask for our true feelings. If a friend or acquaintance of ours is being attacked or ridiculed by others behind his back, we have the option to defend him, or, out of expediency, go through the motion of joining in the ridicule so as not to appear different. Laughter gives the impression of sharing in the feeling of the group.

5.  Embarrassment Laughter

Like evasion laughter, here too one can mask one’s feelings and stall for time. Here we laugh because we are not quite sure what the other person’s comments mean, or whether his intentions towards us are amicable or hostile. The very act of laughing may cause us to tilt the head back and avert our gaze, and thereby relieve our embarrassment by momentarily pretending that the remarks were directed at us.

6.  Apologetic Laughter

This is related to evasion laughter and embarrassment laughter. We may laugh prior to beginning some action, the outcome of which we are uncertain about. We sometimes say, ‘I’ve never done this before ...’ or ‘I can’t guarantee what is going to happen ...’ when we embark upon a new task. Laughter may either accompany or substitute for the oral statement and its meaning is obvious: we are gearing up for possible failure or for appearing foolish. Through the laugh, we lead others to believe that we are not taking the situation too seriously ourselves.

7.  Defensive Laughter

We may preface breaking bad news with laughter, perhaps partly in an attempt to soften the blow and partly by way of apologizing for being the one to announce it. This laughter acts as an excuse for some action we did not take or our indecision regarding some event that resulted in a tragedy.

8.  Anxiety Laughter

Tension in social encounters stems from anxiety as well as embarrassment. Anxiety laughter is a manifestation of release of tension from a specific anxiety-provoking situation. We may laugh with the feeling of relief when a period of acute tension comes to an end.

9.  Derision Laughter

This is obviously an alternative, or an additive, to the encoding of hostile humor in situations where one individual wishes to express superiority over another. It is particularly prevalent among children when they mock a child who is physically or mentally deformed. Adults use derision laughter as a weapon in more subtle, psychological ways, not so much for deriding the physical abnormalities of their victims (for which the latter cannot be blamed) and more for ridiculing the odd behavior, mannerisms, attitudes, or incompetence of their victims (for which they can be blamed more readily).

Derision laughter is also used as a form of refusal or exclusion, particularly when aimed at an individual by the members of a group, and at that individual’s expense. Such laughter may draw attention to some characteristics of the individual (voice, accent, manner of dress, age, size) which sets him apart from the rest of the group, or it may be based upon the group’s desire to exclude that person from joining in their activities.

10.  Joyous Laughter

This is a pure expression of excitement; a spontaneous reaction to pleasurable and exhilarating activities and particularly characteristic of children at play.