Thursday, May 3, 2012

What Does Laughter Convey?

Sharmila felt their eyes boring into her. She felt her back stiffen but continued walking, her head high. She knew they thought her proud. That's okay by me, she thought, tossing her head. They are useless bitches anyway. With her mind distracted she didn't notice the stone in her path. She tripped. Arms flailing wildly for a few seconds and legs running uncontrollably to right gravity, she finally managed to regain her balance. Her neck went a slow dull red as she heard them snicker.
Microsoft free clipart

Exactly the same happened to Dina. Except, she fell flat. For a second the fall knocked the breath out of her. Her face screwed up in pain. Making a superhuman effort because she was conscious of the watching group, she laughed. No one laughed until she did. Then helpless laughter took over. One of the group went up to her and smiling, held out her hand to hoist Dina back up again.

What lay behind the laughter? The bunch of girls knew Sharmila thought herself above them. Her airs made them feel slightly spiteful and when they witnessed her stumble and lose face, it was not only unexpected, it was doubly gratifying because her airs were reduced to naught by the sight of her thrashing about helplessly. They knew she felt more humiliated than proud right then. It was the best equaliser - a leveller. They snickered softly amongst themselves aware that she heard.

Dina, on the other hand, didn't have any such airs. She behaved normally with the others. Besides, she fell and might've hurt herself. If nobody would've been there to witness her fall, she would've given herself a bit longer to wince at her physical discomfort. But with witnesses she felt embarrassed and laughed to convey not only that she was alright but that she understood how funny the sight of her landing on her backside might've appeared to them.

When she laughed the bunch of girls realised she was more embarrassed than hurt. Why did that evoke their laughter? Perhaps they felt awkward for having witnessed her pride take a slight beating and tried to get rid of that feeling by laughing; perhaps they understood it could well have been them and the laughter was to express a tiny bit of relief it wasn't; perhaps they felt a sudden sense of relief from anxiety that Dina wasn't hurt. Nobody would've laughed if she were badly hurt. People normally don't laugh at someone's obvious distress. In short, their laughter conveyed a plethora of emotions and, unlike with Sharmila, it was inclusive.

There are many kinds of laughter. There are nuances and layers for each individual type and this discussion covers a few. The best are the ones that express happiness or friendly amusement. Amused laughter conveys appreciation for someone's sense of humour or wit. It could be evoked by a feeling of incongruity, a clever turn of phrase, double or hidden meanings, appreciation for someone's ability to recount a joke well, an unexpected punch line. It could be many things - what tickles the funny bone is as varied as there are individuals on our planet.

Often laughter is tolerant, indulgent or affectionate as with a child. The best release after a harrowing experience is nervous laughter - perhaps you fared better than you expected in an exam or witnessed an old lady narrowly miss being hit by a bus whilst crossing the road; perhaps the ghost story you watched made you uneasy but you don't wish to let on to your friends.

Laughter really does convey many emotions but there are some darker emotions that tell us not all is well with the person laughing. Kids are often guilty of insensitivity and need to be taught gently but firmly that it is cruel to laugh at physical handicaps like stuttering speech or crossed or squint eyes. Let's face it, a few adults are guilty of the same but hopefully, on the whole, society is quick to censure them.

Some people are plain attention seekers and more often than not, their laughter is loud and jarring. Others laugh derisively to convey they don't agree with someone else's opinion. Such laughter stems from a desire to make others feel inferior and unsure of themselves, to poke fun at or bully others. Disrespecting others makes people who indulge in such laughter feel better about themselves. If others rise to the bait and feel less worthy it makes them feel rewarded. It is best not to rise to their bait or even to show you care. Such people (the disrespectful) need a different set of skills to feel good about themselves, improve their self esteem and feel empathetic towards others.

Getting along with others is an important skill to have as human beings are essentially social animals. Parents aren't born with parenting skills and yet need to ensure their kids are empowered with such skills. How do they do that? I've often recommended the book, "How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk". It is as good a place as any for parents to start learning such skills and ensure their kids grow up feeling good about themselves.I am sure there is much out there on the net too.

To end, here is what, according to this site, happy laughter does for us. It lifts us up. Life becomes worth living. We experience that vanishing state of being called relaxation. We stress less and enjoy other people more. We become fully present in the moment.Our kids seem to know all this instinctively as they seem to laugh a lot more readily than grownups. It is up to grown ups to preserve that knowledge in their kids so they grow up feeling positive about themselves and others.


  1. Really thought provoking!
    Its sad that from the pure unfettered laughter and joy that children like my 18 month old display, we move to a style of laughter where we seek to , protect ourselves,deflect our intentions, deceive others and save face. We really need to learn from our young ones :)

  2. Thanks YT. You said it well. In this case roles are definitely reversed. An 18 month old, eh? What a lovely age.

  3. Tomes have been written about what constitutes humour and why people laugh! You have encapsulated the ideas very well!

    1. Thanks CS. Whilst not a detailed, comprehensive thesis, hope it spikes interest.

  4. Laughter is the best medicine:)

  5. so many layers of laughter uncovered ! nice, thought provoking post !

  6. Glad you enjoyed it, NJ

    Thanks, bb

  7. A very thought provoking post... right from the innocent laughter to 'you failed' laughter... every kind displays an aspect of your personality...

  8. Excellent post. I agree with Rahul's comment above.