July 2014

Laughter - Don’t sweat the small stuff

Laughter is commonly interpreted as a universally recognised social signal of joy and mirth. Often, this is indeed the case. However, I wish to propose that laughter is much more than that. Through my ongoing PhD research, I have come to understand laughter as a behaviour which serves to negotiate states of discordance. These discordances are varied and wide ranging. For instance, they could be social, in the case of an awkward social interaction, physiological, such as in the case of laughter buffering the experience of pain, or psychological, in terms of shifting a spike in emotional arousal to a state which is closer to a state of emotional balance. At times, laughter can serve to manage multiple discordances at once.

To begin with the latter two for example, at the earliest stages of my research and in contradiction to my initially emerging thoughts that laughter may be an entirely social phenomenon, a participant (pseudonym Patricia) described in a research interview how she had recently walked into a closed glass patio door, whilst in a solitary setting and how she laughed out loud as a consequence. In this case, as there was no one else present, the laughter was clearly not a social signal to an onlooker. Indeed, when questioned specifically about such a hypothesis, she reported that she was not thinking of what other people would think of her for having walked into the glass. Essentially, this incident could not be interpreted as Patricia trying to cover up her embarrassment, even if it the cover up were to an imagined audience. Hence, the laughter could accurately be described as reactive to the circumstance.

This incident contradicted my initial preconception that laughter was an entirely social phenomenon. The memory of this early interview remained with me and it was troubling for some time during my research journey, as I was trying (in complete conflict with the Grounded Theory approach I was using) to wedge my belief that there must be some social factor underlying her laughter. Unbeknownst to myself, I was hoping that evidence would emerge to support this notion. It wasn’t until I grew more confident in my abilities as a Grounded Theory researcher that I could let go of my preconceived social explanation for laughter. This allowed for the emergence of the discordance negotiation concept referred to above.

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