You're funnier than you think
Humor's social requirements
If I’m being honest, I think I’m pretty funny most of the time. And most of the time, I fall flat on my face while trying to be funny. I judge my measure of being funny from the reactions I get from others in the proper context, but isn’t the content of humor what counts?
Chip and Dan Heath in The Power of Moments think otherwise:
Think of the last time you laughed in a group. Why were you laughing? The answer is pretty obvious: because someone said something funny. Actually, that obvious answer is mostly wrong. The researcher Robert Provine and three assistants roamed around college campuses and city sidewalks, eavesdropping on conversations. When someone laughed, they jotted down what was said just before the laugh.
Provine found that fewer than 20% of the comments that sparked laughter were even remotely funny. In contrast to the jokes we laugh at from comedians, most laughter followed "banal remarks" such as "Look, it's Andre." Or "Are you sure?" Or "It was nice meeting you, too." Even the funniest remarks they recorded may not draw a chuckle from you: Two highlights were “You don't have to drink, just buy us drinks" and "Do you date within your species?"
So why do we laugh? Provine found that laughter was 30 times more common in social settings than private ones. It's a social reaction. "Laughter is more about relationships than humor,” Provine concluded. We laugh to tie the group together. Our laughter says, I'm with you. I'm part of your group.
In groups, we are constantly assessing the reactions and feelings of the group. Our words and glances are a kind of social sonar. Are you still there? Are you hearing what I'm hearing? Are your reactions like mine? Laughing in groups is another way of sending positive signals back and forth. We are synchronizing our reactions.1
We mostly think of people who make us laugh as being comedians, but the Heath brothers show us that our reactions are, yes, a signal of our enjoyment, but that enjoyment is a function of the context we find ourselves in. To a certain degree, this makes intuitive sense: sometimes, we have to be “in the mood” for a joke.
But this goes a bit further to show that our internal judgment about what makes something funny (what makes it a “joke”) is socially dependent. This makes me think of a few applications:
How can we be more gracious to “newcomers” in our social situations, inviting them in so they can become part of our groups?
How can we create more intentional moments of impact? Given the social functions of humor and other emotional expressions that depend on being together, are there situations we attempt to replace electronically that we need to get together for?
With that, thanks for reading, and see you again soon.