Thirteen years ago, my wife suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm. It was a horrible time for us, which I’ve described elsewhere. She was pregnant with our second child, and the doctors weren’t sure right away what the problem was.
After she was initially hospitalized, I had to contact her dentist to cancel an appointment that she clearly would be unable to make. So I called, saying that I had to cancel my wife’s appointment because she’d had an aneurysm. And the woman on the phone whom I was speaking to…laughed. It wasn’t an outright guffaw, just a short spurt. “Ha-ha…really?” she said. “Yes, really,” I said.
She did it. I’ve done it. You’ve probably done it too. The involuntary, but inappropriate, giggle.
I was upset for a long time about that phone call. But I’ve come to realize that it probably was an uncontrolled reaction, and that there was no intentional malice. So I’ve let it go.
Recently, though, I’ve begun to wonder. Why is it that sometimes we produce socially inappropriate laughter? I decided to find out.
Robert Provine, in his book Laughter: A Scientific Investigation (2000), discusses the results of 10 years of research into when, how, and why people laugh. The professor of neuroscience and behavior found several key features of laughter that shed some light on my question.
- Laughter is undeniably a social activity. Provine’s study found that people almost always laugh in social situations and almost never when alone. In fact, people laughed about 30 times more often when with friends than when doing routine tasks by themselves. “The sociality of laughing was striking,” he writes. He also says that laughter serves the purpose of creating bonds with other people, solidifying friendships, and making acquaintances. “Laughter is about relationships,” he states.
- Laughter is an “unconscious response to social and linguistic cues.” In fact, we have little control over our laughing. We cannot create a genuine laugh on command–it usually sounds phony–and we often burst out laughing when we have no intention to. We can stifle a laugh, but it’s not always easy.
- Laughter is frequently used to punctuate speech. During informal conversation between friends, both the speaker and the listeners will laugh. Surprisingly, they almost always laugh at the right time, and listeners usually wait for the speaker to complete a phrase before laughing (consider how you feel when someone is laughing while you’re trying to say something). Laughter can punctuate both a statement and a question, and doesn’t necessarily follow a phrase that is obviously funny, Provine found. It’s more about the rhythm and timing of social conversation.
- Laughter is related to crying in that they are both innate emotional responses. Laughter and crying “are neurologically linked and share … features” such as heaving, rhythmic vocalizations, Provine writes. I’ve heard people being asked whether they are laughing or crying because the two expressions can be so similar.
- Women, both as speakers and listeners, laugh more than men in social conversation. Provine’s study found that female speakers laugh more than 80 percent of the time, and female listeners from 50 to 70 percent of the time. “Females are the leading laughers,” Provine says. Provine theorizes that there is a genetic neurological basis to laughter, over which we have little or no conscious control.
Once, I was having lunch with a friend. We’d covered all the chit chat, and the meal was almost over, when she sort of blurted out “I think my husband’s an alcoholic.”
And I let out a snorting kind of laugh.
I wasn’t really sure what she’d just said, but I’d already chuckled, and was beginning to realize that that was the wrong reaction, as her words sunk in. I felt awful. I tried to cover it with more humor, but it felt inadequate. Later, I apologized by e-mail. She said not to worry about it.
Based on Provine’s insights, here is what I think happened: We were in a social setting, only the two of us in conversation. It had been mostly lighthearted topics about work or kids up to that point. Something about our conversational rhythm cued me that her statement was going to be more of the same. Unconsciously, I punctuated her statement with a laugh, but I chose the wrong emotion.
As for the phone call to the dentist, I think she was just ready to respond to an everyday complaint, and simply let loose the laugh. It usually works. Except when it doesn’t.
We can’t be too hard on ourselves, though. Provine points out that only people can laugh. It’s part of being human.