So you are hanging out with the guys. A nice banter is going on, you have fun. Everybody is cracking jokes and now it’s your turn for making everybody laugh. You begin your joke, your punchline drops and….. “Chirp chirp”,…… Crickets. Utter silence.
Someone else something totally not witty. Everybody laughs. Now you feel just embarrassed.
What the heck happened?
Why don’t people laugh at your jokes?
The joke was good, that’s not the problem.
I used to experience this all the time in high school. I knew I was witty and not afraid to show it among friends and family. But at school, I bombed every time. The cool kids would have nothing of my smart remarks. As a reward for my witticisms, they would make the most worthless comebacks. Followed by pointing and laughing. Why where they funny?
Apparently, there was more to it, than just being clever.
What other elements are involved in this elusive humor thing? A lot of times laughing doesn’t even seem related to jokes. How come?
According to popular theory, there are two overlapping instincts for laughter. Social standing and surprise (and maybe salads). Both can be combined in humor, but humor does not have to be part of it. Together these form an intricate psychological play that makes us laugh.
When you laugh out of surprise it is due to release of tension, like hiding our embarrassment. Accidently falling or dropping something causes you to laugh it off.
In a joke, you are tricked and laugh at an unexpected finale in the narrative. When repeating gags based on surprise, the twist will be expected. Thus not as funny anymore. So use your shockingly good unicorn jokes sparingly.
There is a major drive in people to feel superior. Or when feeling inferior, trying to bring others to your level. That’s why many jokes are at someone’s expense.
You make sadistic remarks to feel better. Think about jokes were people make fun of minorities, the office loser or stupid people. You do it because it makes you feel better, more superior. You want to further elevate yourself.
People with a higher perceived status use this tactic to maintain their position on the metaphorical podium.
In addition, we make fun of celebrities, politicians or our boss. To drag them down to our level. Or at least in our imagination. Trying to compensate for the inferiority we feel because of their fame, influence or authority.
The principles of surprise and status define 90% of laughter. The combination of these two in different ways give way to sub categories of humor. The sort of flavors you can use to make people laugh. These are; instinct, ambivalence, incongruence, release, solving a puzzle, regression, and morbidity.
You have instinctive moments when you laugh as a reaction to certain situations. Other primates display certain laughing behavior as well. Think of apes showing their teeth to display dominance. When celebrating a triumph you use jokes to display extra dominance. Like when you won a game and want to smear in your victory. Or when you lost trying to crack a joke to remain your dignity. Because humor is an acceptable way of attack. Though it is only accepted if others loath the object of disfavor as well.
In our culture humor is an acceptable way of attack, in opposition to instant violence . Though it is only accepted if others loath the object of disfavor as well.
Incongruity and Ambivalence
When stories, jokes or situations are incongruent or ambivalent we laugh.
Certain aspects can’t be rationally paired or are unclear in their meaning. You have a disconnect in your mind. To release this tension you laugh as a sort of reward. The theory states that as cognitive beings, we are limited in our reasoning. Evolution rewards you in moments you can’t rationally cope with unresolved issues.
This “error” and consequent dopamine reward due to incompatibility, is used by many comedians. All the random jokes you find on internet meme-hives are the basis of this bug/feature in our mind.
Source: Off the mark
Release of Tension
When you do something embarrassing or something awkward happened, you laugh it off. You try to release the tension, lighten things up.
Or if a particular strained conversation happens, or certain chaos in traffic and you get out unscathed. You laugh out of relief because the stress is finally over.
Comic relief is added in movies to release tension in an otherwise too heavy or serious movie. Making it a more enjoyable than when all the suspense is cramped up. That is why thrillers don’t often have comic reliefs because the goal is to feel intense throughout the movie.
On a different scale, we love to laugh in groups. To release our collective anxiety together. That is why we gather in comedy cafe’s and watch comedies together. With the anticipation of relaxing through laughter.
Solving a Puzzle
When solving a complex endeavor. Or having an epiphany you can laugh. We are celebrating solving something complex. This is a surprise and you can feel superior. In part why the fat Buddha laughs in Buddhist culture. He has seen the puzzle of the world fit together.
Humor is therapeutic as well. Helping you inconvenient truths. You can use it to introduce and accept uncomfortable facts. It can be used to ease your way into accepting your insecurities. But is not always a productive way of coping. Imagine people who joke about their own insecurities. But don’t solve their issues.
Wit is also used to relay harsh lessons of wisdom. Often criticism doesn’t get accepted when bluntly stated. With the power of humor, it can be digested more easily. Take The Daily Show, it has confronted people for years with uncomfortable facts by making people laugh. This way people don’t shy away from reality but are more able to confront it. George Carlin and Bill Hicks are prime examples of comedians who use this. Truth through comedy.
So what of our sick sense of humor?
Lots of us have this sinister tendency to make inappropriate jokes. For a part, it is innate for us to relativize serious and negative experiences. Making us feel better through laughter. This way you can look at adversity more directly. Displaying true feelings, you don’t really want to express.
It is also used to gain status, finding respect or attention by shocking people. One gains ‘respect’ by the audacity of the joke, and surprise of the brutality.
Source: Cyanide and Happiness
Social Standing and Laughing
So we skimmed the surface of laughter mechanics. Let’s elaborate a bit more on social standing, bonding and the connection with laughter. Laughing is a social behavior. Small prove: people are 30 times more likely to laugh when in the company of others. See for yourself, how often you laugh alone.
It really is a social interaction. A communication of status and moods.
“People laugh when they’re interacting with other people regardless of the “jokiness””
As said, we like to feel superior or make others feel inferior. In a group with a clear hierarchy, people often postpone laughing until the “silverback gorilla” starts laughing. Like in a boardroom, only when the CEO laughs the rest feels allowed to laugh as well. When the junior associate walks in and cracks a joke, nobody will laugh due to the social hierarchy.
People look unconsciously for social hierarchy cues and act accordingly. Laughing on your own terms in these situations can raise your perceived social standing, but also bring you on the radar for the dominant player.
When persons of similar or unknown perceived status meet, they try to figure out how to get along. When positively engaged, a good mood is created using laughter. By stimulating pleasant emotions in others and bonding over the shared experience. If a laughter transaction is done properly, people enjoy each others company more.
This bonding strategy is also used to try to get accepted. Lower standing people laugh nervously to try to fit in, trying to create positive feelings in superior people. Like making bad jokes or laugh at themselves. This will get them accepted or neglected.
So now we know a lot more about why we LOL, ROFL, LMAO and PMSL. But what can we do with this information? Here are a few action steps you can take, to up your witticism game!
- Laugh on your own terms.
Don’t laugh to get accepted, don’t laugh when “higher up” makes crappy remarks and don’t laugh when nervous
- When making jokes use a frame of superiority
- Use surprising twists in your stories.
- Relay wisdom or harsh confrontation supported by humor
Don’t bombard people with knowledge or crass criticism and expect them to accept it.
- And wear a purple wizard hat
There is, of course, a more nuanced narrative to the different aspects of laughing, social status, and surprise. But understanding why people laugh will make it easier to understand why a joke bombs or wins.
It has helped me to recognize a lot more how people actually interact. How I can understand my own position and those of others. And improve on that. When trying to bond I joke around. It may get some getting used to, but not laughing at the guy you actually hate may tip the perceived social standings.
So tell me, how do you recognize the interplay of laughing, humor, and status in your life?